The Pew Internet and American Life Project releases studies every so often that provide great insights into the ways that the Internet is affecting American life. The most recent one focuses on the ways people are accessing health information on the Internet.
This study shows that Americans are using Internet to find health information and support at generally increasing levels. Particularly interesting to me, the study shows that online communities and email support groups based on health problems represent a growing and effective resource for Americans.
Further, the study outlines that Americans are beginning to communicate with doctors via email and fill prescriptions online.
As noted above, a small but enthusiastic number of respondents praise an emerging feature the Internet offers for doctor-patient relations: email correspondence. Only 7% of respondents say they have exchanged email with their doctors, but almost all of these emailers say their electronic correspondence with their doctor has been useful to them in their health care.
Some other quotes from the survey:
Participation in health-related online groups and communities has been steadily rising. In May-June 2001, we found that 36% of Internet users had visited a Web site that provides information or support for people interested in a specific medical condition or personal situation. In September 2002, that number grew to 47% of Internet users, and by December 2002, to 54% of Internet users, or about 63 million Americans.
This usefulness and popularity of online support translates into enthusiasm and even passion from e-patients and caregivers for electronic communications. In comments, they describe the value from email and support groups in both emotional and practical terms. A number of themes emerge. On the emotional side, empathy is highly valued; giving support is as important as getting it. On the practical side, support leads to tangible results.
A study published in the December 2002 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 95% of participants in online support groups for depression said communication with other patients alleviated some depression symptoms. (15) As one e-patient confided, "Just when I think my life is horrible, I read someone else's post and they have it worse...makes me feel better."
I saw this in healthcare workers in a community I managed at Solucient, LLC. A leading benefit to the members was a feeling that "We're all in this together".
I think healthcare, which is not always on the leading edge of Internet technology, is going to see a ton of opportunities soon in terms of doctor-patient communication, internal hospital communication and cross-hospital communication. These opportunities will come from online communication platforms (web sites) that allow healthcare workers to pool knowledge and patients to support one another via online discusssions.
It's happening today, but I think the real growth is on the way. A local organization (Bellingham, WA) that's working in this direction is called Pursuing Perfection. Interestingly, this group is using a network of weblogs to manage project information and discussion. Marc Pierson keeps a weblog with good links to related articles and resources.