Background: In the last decade, the number of Internet users worldwide has dramatically increased. People are using the Internet for various health-related purposes. It is important to monitor such use as it may have an impact on the individual's health and behavior, patient-practitioner roles, and on general health care provision.
Objectives: This study investigates trends and patterns of European health-related Internet use over a period of 18 months. The main study objective was to estimate the change in the proportion of the population using the Internet for health purposes, and the importance of the Internet as a source of health information compared to more traditional sources.
Methods: The survey data were collected through computer-assisted telephone interviews. A representative sample (N = 14,956) from seven European countries has been used: Denmark, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Norway, Poland, and Portugal. The European eHealth Consumer Trends Survey was first conducted in October-November 2005 and repeated in April-May 2007. In addition to providing background information, respondents were asked to rate the importance of various sources of health information. They were also queried as to the frequency of different online activities related to health and illness and the effects of such use on their disposition.
Results: The percentage of the population that has used the Internet for health purposes increased from an estimated 42.3% (95% CI [Confidence Interval] 41.3 - 43.3) in 2005 to an estimated 52.2% (95% CI 51.3 - 53.2) in 2007. Significant growth in the use of the Internet for health purposes was found in all the seven countries. Young women are the most active Internet health users. The importance of the Internet as a source of health information has increased. In 2007, the Internet was perceived as an important source of health information by an estimated 46.8% (95% CI 45.7 - 47.9) of the population, a significant increase of 6.5 % (95% CI 4.9 - 8.1) from 2005. The importance of all the traditional health information channels has either decreased or remained the same. An estimated 22.7% (95% CI 21.7 - 23.6) are using it for more interactive services than just reading health information.
Conclusion: The Internet is increasingly being used as a source of health information by the European population, and its perceived importance is rising. Use of the Internet for health purposes is growing in all age groups and for both men and women, with especially strong growth among young women. We see that experienced Internet health users are also using the Internet as an active communication channel, both for reaching health professionals and for communicating with peers.