In the most bullish forecast yet on the adoption of social media in health, iCrossing has found that 34% of Americans turn to social media for health research.

iCrossing has been analyzing “How America Searches” for financial services, travel, and other vertical market information over the past two years. Now, they’ve researched Americans’ search for health and wellness information.

It will be no surprise to Health Populi readers that health search is a normal part of most Americans’ online activities, based on previous research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, California HealthCare Foundation, JupiterMedia, and other credible research teams.

This report from iCrossing breaks new ground by offering some hard numbers about consumers’ use of social media in health.

Among the available social media types, consumers chose Wikipedia (chosen by 20% of online health searchers), online forums and message boards as the most favored in health and wellness. iCrossing found that these were particularly attractive to the youngest adult cohort of 18-to-34 year old health searchers. But note that the average age of the social media user for health is 37, compared with 44 years of age for the overall health search population.

Several findings are particularly notable and new:

Consumers going to social media sites tend to be in decision-making mode. They are in search of useful insights into health services, costs for specific procedures and devices, and reputations of providers. This is a role that will be played by sites like Blue Cross of Minnesota’s Health Care Scoop and the emerging Anthem/Zagat sites.

After the health professional — whether clinician, pharmacist, or nurse — “someone else with the same condition” is important to those consumers seeking advice about particular medications. People with serious chronic conditions are looking to consumer-experts for sage advice on meds and care processes. The logic: who better to consult than another experienced patient to get the skinny on living with side effects and quality of life issues? Nearly 2/3 of people who go online for health information report this emerging “Consumer Opinion Leader” as “extremely important” or “very important.”

The most compelling reason consumers are using social media in health is to “connect with other consumers to exchange information or get support,” according to 75% of the online health searcher. The next most important reasons to use social media vs. other types of online sites is to find out more about the costs of a procedure or medical equipment (noted by 55%) and to access personal health records (noted by 56%).

The iCrossing survey was conducted in December 2007, so should be considered current as of the timing of the date of this blog post.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:
While there are more than a few skeptics in the market today dissing the “Health 2.0” concept (among them, those who also denigrate the “Web 2.0” moniker), the proof of the reality of social media in health is alive and well and healing on sites like DiabetesMine, PatientsLikeMe, Organized Wisdom, and WEGOHealth, among many others too numerous to mention. Increasing numbers of people are reaching out to others for more than the kind of support they might have found in the Compuserve health interest groups in the 1980s; they’re finding practical solutions to chronic health challenges. Consumer-generated content in health is finding a receptive audience in this early adoption phase. There are already a cadre of influential health bloggers and social media mavens who are the Patient Opinion Leaders in their disease areas — whether cancer, diabetes, MS, mental health, HIV, and a long list of other chronic conditions. Just as pharma companies recognize and reward Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) for their knowledge of patients and prescriptions, the Consumer Opinion Leader (COL) will become influential for both other consumers and, increasingly, stakeholders like health plans and pharma companies.