Background: The Internet is a major source of information for professionals and the general public, especially in the field of health. However, despite ever-increasing connection rates, a digital divide persists in the industrialised countries. The objective of this study was to assess the determinants involved in: 1) having or not having Internet access; and 2) using or not using the Internet to obtain health information.
Methods: A cross-sectional survey of a representative random sample was conducted in the Paris metropolitan area, France, in the fall of 2005 (n = 3023).
Results: Close to 70% of the adult population had Internet access, and 49% of Internet users had previously searched for medical information. Economic and social disparities observed in online health information seeking are reinforced by the economic and social disparities in Internet access, hence a double divide. While individuals who reported having a recent health problem were less likely to have Internet access (odds ratio (OR): 0.72, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.53-0.98), it is they who, when they have Internet access, are the most likely to search for health information (OR = 1.44, 95% CI = 1.11-1.87).
Conclusion: In the French context of universal health insurance, access to the Internet varies according to social and socioeconomic status and health status, and its use for health information seeking varies also with health beliefs, but not to health insurance coverage or health-care utilisation. Certain economic and social inequalities seem to impact cumulatively on Internet access and on the use of the Internet for health information seeking. It is not obvious that the Internet is a special information tool for primary prevention in people who are the furthest removed from health concerns. However, the Internet appears to be a useful complement for secondary prevention, especially for better understanding health problems or enhancing therapeutic compliance.