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Users Are Skittish to Reveal Health Data Online

Fifty-two million American adults, 55 percent of the Internet-using public, have gone to the Web to research health information, but their unwillingness to reveal personal data makes it unclear whether they would fully accept healthcare online, according to a study released this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The survey of 6,413 Internet users older than age 18, conducted from March to August, found that 80 percent of those who had sought health information online said it is important that they can get the information anonymously. Only 21 percent had provided their e-mail addresses to a health Web site, and only 17 percent had provided their name or other identifying information.

Consumers have shown an instinctive mistrust of putting their personal information on the Internet, said Lee Rainie, director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. When it comes to personal health data, that mistrust is compounded by fears that information that consumers put on the Web could be used against them by employers or by insurance companies.

Many fear that Web businesses tracking their activities on the Internet could lead to the loss of their health insurance coverage, Rainie said. However, there is no evidence of a single case of this happening.

“There is sort of a predisposition Americans have about this,” Rainie said. “They don't give up their name for health materials as they do for non-health [materials].”

This hesitancy to risk revealing personal information may be part of the reason why consumers continue to seek only health content on the Internet and have not shown a willingness to use health products and services. Only 10 percent of those surveyed said they had purchased medicine or vitamins online, while 9 percent said they had communicated with a doctor online.

Convincing consumers to spend money online for health products may be a matter of waiting until more users become experienced with the Web and comfortable with online purchasing, Rainie said. The medical establishment can help that process by investing in an online presence. New users will be more willing to deal online with familiar businesses, such as insurance companies, drug makers and bricks-and-mortar pharmacies.

Other findings from the study include:

• Forty-eight percent of those who sought health information for themselves said the material affected their decision, while 36 percent of those who sought information for others said the material influenced their actions.

• Ninety-one percent of those who sought health information said they looked for material regarding a particular illness, while only 13 percent said they looked for general fitness and nutrition information.

• Sixty-three percent of women with Internet access have sought health information online, compared with 43 percent of men.

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