The Better-Off Online: Disparities in Health Information Seeking

Dec 01

Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report that should serve as a wake-up call for those studying the intersection between the Internet and public health.

Pew’s report focused on what might be called the “wealth gap,” namely that those in higher-income households are different from other Americans in their tech ownership and use.

This isn’t a new concept, and the existence and ramifications of income disparities has been covered ad nauseum throughout the Great Recession. What I find most troubling (and fascinating) about Pew’s findings is the following:

“Internet users in the top income brackets are more likely to search for medical information online, seek treatment information, seek material about doctors and medical facilities, and get data concerning test results.”

The “top is income bracket” includes individuals making $75,000+ annually.

Digital information seeking can translate into Americans making more informed, empowered decisions regarding their health. If the “wealth gap” is sustained, millions of low-income Americans will continue to miss out on a viable alternative source of health information.

People living at or below the federal poverty level are significantly more likely to be uninsured, and as a result, are less likely to have access to affordable care. Consequently, they are one of the populations most in need of credible, alternative sources of health care information.

The gap between rich and poor is most pronounced in the area of digital information seeking around medical issues.  Fully 80 percent of Pew’s survey respondents in the $75,000+ income bracket have searched for information about a medical issue online – nearly 30 percentage points greater than the least wealthy individuals surveyed.

Those respondents who could be classified as “middle class” (i.e., those making between $50,000 and $74,999) did not fare much better.  Only 66 percent of respondents in this income bracket reported that they had searched for information about a medical issue online.

Searches for medical facilities represented the smallest gap (previous reports by Pew have reported similar findings).

So what does this mean for social marketers?

  1. Recognize that income is only one of many barriers to digital health information seeking. There are numerous barriers which contribute to Americans staying offline to search for health information. These include a lack of trust in the credibility of information found online, and a lack of time to devote to digital health information seeking.
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  3. Consider mobile as a digital information sharing alternative. Only 40 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 per year have broadband access at home, whereas 75 percent of Americans in this income bracket own a cell phone. While not all mobile phones provide Internet access, nearly all are equipped with SMS/text capabilities, a viable channel for sharing digital health information.
  4. Accept that not all of us will evolve into “e-patients.”  Certain populations, regardless of income, are expected to remain offline for the foreseeable future.  The very elderly for example, will likely continue to rely on their doctors and “connected” loved ones to help them make informed health care decisions.

Pew’s survey was conducted in late 2009 and 2010, and with today’s evolving economic and health care environment, it’s likely that these findings have shifted and will continue to shift throughout 2011.  But even as the nation’s economic situation improves, even small social and economic inequalities are detrimental to the health of any nation or society.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 at 2:37 pm and is filed under Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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