Background: Use of the Internet for health information continues to grow rapidly, but its impact on health care is unclear. Concerns include whether patients' access to large volumes of information will improve their health; whether the variable quality of the information will have a deleterious effect; the effect on health disparities; and whether the physician-patient relationship will be improved as patients become more equal partners, or be damaged if physicians have difficulty adjusting to a new role.
Methods: Telephone survey of nationally representative sample of the American public, with oversample of people in poor health.
Results: Of the 3209 respondents, 31% had looked for health information on the Internet in the past 12 months, 16% had found health information relevant to themselves and 8% had taken information from the Internet to their physician. Looking for information on the Internet showed a strong digital divide; however, once information had been looked for, socioeconomic factors did not predict other outcomes. Most (71%) people who took information to the physician wanted the physician's opinion, rather than a specific intervention. The effect of taking information to the physician on the physician-patient relationship was likely to be positive as long as the physician had adequate communication skills, and did not appear challenged by the patient bringing in information.
Conclusions: For health information on the Internet to achieve its potential as a force for equity and patient well-being, actions are required to overcome the digital divide; assist the public in developing searching and appraisal skills; and ensure physicians have adequate communication skills.