The Rise of the E-Patient

The Rise of the E-Patient
Lee Rainie

By Tina Beychok
One key component to reaching people with understandable and meaningful healthcare messages is where they are going to receive those messages. This is where Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project comes in. Much of his research is examining how people’s Internet use affects their families, communities, health care, education, and work places.
Rainie started by sharing the story of a couple in Oregon who worked as self-employed software engineers. One day, the wife slipped and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk. She required immediate neurosurgery. Although she recovered, their health insurance was not so lucky. They were having difficulty paying her medical bills. In response to one blog post by a friend telling their story, it spread throughout the Internet and help came pouring in.

Rainie used this story to illustrate how our networks today are very different from the past. He referred to this new trend as Networked Individualism. He listed several characteristics of this new network:
* Social networks are more important than the tight-knit groups of the past
* Social networks are more segmented and layered than in the past
* Social networks are more vivid and tied to creation of information/media

He went on to say that this environment has given rise to a whole new type of content creator. These people represent what Rainie called the “Fifth Estate of content creators.” In much of their content, these people tell their stories and share their voices. The content they provide also tends to be more partisan and personal than the objective information of the past. Rainie went on to point out that there were three distinct technological revolutions that allowed for this to happen.

Internet and Broadband Revolution
Over the course of 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, Internet use among American adults rose from 46% to 72%. Interestingly, one of the sharpest increases was among adults ages 50 to 65, who showed a 30% increase in Internet usage. Rainie added, “Two thirds of adults and 80% of teens are now content creators. This is the big change the Internet has introduced to media landscape.” In terms of broadband, 70% of Americans now use this instead of slower dial-up access. This has created an increase in volume, variety and relevance of content.

Rainie then talked specifically about how this Internet and broadband revolution has changed the way patients (or potential patients) seek out healthcare information. For example, 61% of all adults get their health information online. Nineteen percent consult healthcare provider reviews and rankings, and another 18% provide those rankings and reviews. Rainie added that all of this means that today’s e-patient is “empowered and engaged.”

Wireless Revolution
The second revolution is that of the cell phone. Fully 85% of all Americans now own a cell phone. Fifty-five percent of Americans now own a laptop computer, and 57% use some sort of wireless access.

Rainie noted that 17% of people use their mobile device to gather and share healthcare information. Seven percent of people have some sort of healthcare app, such as a calorie counter, on their handheld devices. Most of these people tend to be young, minorities, living in an urban environment or from a higher socio-economic class. There appears to be no difference in usage between men and women.

Social Networking Revolution
One of the most interesting statistics Rainie shared was that the biggest increase in use of social networking sites from 2005 to 2010 was among adults ages 50 to 64. It went from 7% to 47%. This is particularly significant when you consider the increased use of health care resources by older people.
As with the other e-patient revolutions, social networking has changed how we access healthcare information. According to Rainie:
* 60% of e-patients say the information found online affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition
* 56% say it changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help take care of
* 53% say it lead them to ask a doctor new questions, or to get a second opinion from another doctor
* 49% say it changed the way they think about diet, exercise, or stress management
* 38% say it affected a decision about whether to see a doctor
* 38% say it changed the way they cope with a chronic condition or manage pain

All of this has given rise to those Rainie refers to as “amateur experts” on healthcare issues. He concluded by stressing that this revolution in health information may seem scary, but “it provides a great opportunity for health literacy people to engage and participate in the process.”

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