The article reviewed here is ‘Using the Internet for Health-Related Activities: Findings from a National Probability Sample’ by Atkinson et al and available in HTML format here. This is published in an online journal – ‘The Journal of Medical Internet Research’.
The authors of the paper are members of a public health department and it is easy to see why this topic would be of public health interest. The authors wanted to look at the prevalence and predictors of certain types of health related behaviour online – using online support groups, looking for health related information and buying medicines or vitamins online.
In order to examine these factors, the authors undertook a secondary analysis of the data from a prior study – the National Cancer Institute’s Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS). Secondary analyses are usually helpful for informing further studies as some of the findings may be spurious and would require further exploration. The study involved researchers phoning home telephone numbers randomly. For such an approach, the response rates were reasonably good – 34%. However this method can select for certain populations – those who might be unemployed and therefore more likely to be at home to answer the telephone, those working home businesses, or simply those with home telephones who might well differ from those without. The HINTS questionnaire is available here. A number of demographic variables were also obtained.
The authors found that 58% of the sample used the internet and mainly had annual incomes over $50,000 thus supporting the notion that this sample is not representative of the general population. This is further supported by the finding that 90% of participants used the internet from home. Thus the prevalence of 58% using the internet for health related information is unlikely to represent a general population prevalence. From table 1, there is a trend to increasing use of the internet for searching for health related information with age and also for use of support groups. However the peak for purchasing medicines or vitamins online is 50-64. The details of the medicines purchased online was not clear – for instance whether these were non-prescription medications as there are many associated issues which would need further exploration.
The authors make the interesting point that online support groups were less popular than the other types of health-related behaviour possibly because the questionnaire looked specifically at online support groups rather than the evolving range of health communities. They also note that most people use search engines rather than health portals for locating health information. The study raises more questions for future research and it will be interesting to see how new software technologies interact with health behaviours.
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