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Older adults' psychological and health characteristics influence their use and timing of online health information searches

An estimated 20 to 50 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet to seek health information. The psychological and health characteristics of older adults influence the use and timing of online health information searches, according to a new study. For example, individuals with more education and who were open to new experiences were more likely to use the Internet to look for health information in general, irrespective of the timing of searches in relation to doctor visits. "Health-minded" or otherwise anxious individuals generally used the Internet to garner information before a doctor's visit. This may be to prepare for a visit or it may have even prompted the visit.

Conversely, sicker individuals, especially those with cancer, tended to use the Internet to gather information after doctor visits, perhaps to assist in processing health information, explains Kathryn E. Flynn, Ph.D., of Duke University. Dr. Flynn and colleagues analyzed the responses of 6,279 predominantly white respondents (aged 63 to 66 years) to the 2004 surveys of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.

One-third of respondents had searched online for information about their own health or health care. Half of them searched for health information unrelated to their last doctor visit, while one-third searched after a visit, and one-sixth searched before the visit. Attitudinal and personality factors were also related to seeking health information online. For example, those who preferred having many treatment choices were more likely to use the Internet for health information. The study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS15544).

See "When do older adults turn to the Internet for health information: Findings from the Wisconsin longitudinal study," by Dr. Flynn, Maureen A. Smith, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., and Jeremy Freese, Ph.D., in the December 2006 Journal of General Internal Medicine 21, pp. 1295-1301.

Editor's Note: Another AHRQ-supported study by the same researchers concludes that the majority of older adults want to be given treatment options and have their physician know everything about their medical history. However, they differ substantially in how they want to be involved in discussing and selecting treatments. For more details, see Flynn, K.E., Smith, M.A., and Vanness, D. (2006). "A typology of preferences for participation in healthcare decision making." (AHRQ grant HS15544). Social Science & Medicine 63, pp. 1158-1169.

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