Internet use by primary care patients: where is the digital divide?

Fam Med. 2012 May;44(5):342-7.


Background and objectives: Internet-based technologies such as personal health records and patient portals are increasingly viewed as essential for enhancing patient-provider communication and patient-centered care. We examined how primary care patients use the Internet, particularly patient characteristics associated with Internet use.

Methods: We surveyed patients in five primary care clinic waiting rooms. Patients who had used email or the Internet in the past month (Internet users) were asked how often they used a computer for a variety of tasks. Participants who reported not using the Internet were asked about several potential barriers to Internet use.

Results: We approached 713 patients, and 638 (89.6%) completed questionnaires; 499 (78%) were Internet users and 139 (22%) were non-users. Lack of computer access and not knowing how to use email or the Internet were the most common barriers to Internet use. Younger age, higher education and income, better health, and absence of a chronic illness were associated with Internet use. After controlling for age and other variables, chronic illness was no longer associated with Internet use.

Conclusions: Internet use was high among our primary care patients. The major factor associated with Internet use among patients with chronic conditions was their age. If older adults with chronic illness are to reap the benefits of health information technology, their Internet access will need to be improved. Institutions that are planning to offer consumer health information technology should be aware of groups with lower Internet access.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chronic Disease
  • Consumer Health Information / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet / statistics & numerical data*
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Medical Informatics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Missouri
  • Primary Health Care / methods*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires