Like the Grateful Dead and global warming, health information is everywhere. The proliferating platforms, online and mobile, and the multiplying volume of content and opinions, drive the very social life of health information.

Susannah Fox’s latest research on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in collaboration with the California HealthCare Foundation, illustrates this phenomenon through many fascinating lenses. The Social Life of Health Information is a deep dive into the phenomenon of Americans’ online searches of health by information category and demographics.

Fox has a long-view on Americans’ use of information, on- and off-line. She’s been studying this space for years and is arguably the brand-name guress in the field.

The first Big Difference I note this time around since her last study in 2006 is the increasing penetration of broadband and wireless, and their impact on e-patients. E-patients who have wireless and/or have access to broadband are more engaged with health information.

Among those going online for health information, Fox finds that many people are looking for a “just-in-time someone-like-me” to help inform personal health decisions. This finding confirms recent research from the Edelman Health Engagement Barometer covered in Health Populi on health engagement and patient activation.

One in 3 American adults access social media for health reasons. That’s 60% of online users. Wikipedia is a go-to source among 1 in 2 e-patients. Twitter and other social networks like Facebook — not so much, but they’re still used along with lots of other (non-social but still online) sources.

Overall search for health information about a specific medical problem was relatively flat between 2002 (63%) and 2008 (66%). However, four areas of health search grew and are worth noting:

Prescription drug information. 45% of online adults looked for information about prescription or over-the-counter drugs in 2008, up from 34% in 2002. Rx/OTC is one of the largest growth areas for online health search, perhaps due to consumers’ increasing co-pays for prescription drugs, the growing array of alternatives going off-patent as generics, and Rx switch to OTC for categories such as GI and allergy. In addition, the advent of Medicare Part D has incentivized older Americans to seek pricing and alternative information for prescription drugs to manage their ‘doughnut holes.’

Exercise and fitness. Among Internet users, the percentage of those seeking fitness information has jumped from 36% in the year 2002 to 52% now – one of the biggest growths since 2002 out of all health searches. Younger adults are more engaged in exercise/fitness search online than older health citizens.

Mental health. 21% of American adults, or 28% of Internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about depression, anxiety, stress or mental health issues, compared with 12% of adults, or 21% of Internet users, in 2002. This category is particularly used by women, who account for much of the growth in online research of mental health since 2002. 35% of online women search for information about mental health issues vs. 22% of men.

Information on alternative treatments. 26% of American adults, or 35% of Internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about alternative treatments or medicines, compared with 16% of adults, or 28% of Internet users, in 2002.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The Pew’s work on consumers’ growing use of various platforms in the communications ecosystem is very salient for health – especially for opportunities to address the complex challenge of chronic care management. Read more about the communications ecosystem in the Pew’s work on the new media ecology.

As Fox found in 2006, people with chronic conditions tend to go online for health information more than those with no chronic conditions, as the chart details.

There is opportunity to engage people to manage chronic conditions on a 24×7 basis given their increasing adoption of wireless, mobile technologies. Mobility enhances peoples’ ability to intensively, intimately engage in their health and health care.

Fox has previously pointed out that, “Mobile could be a game-changer” for health. “But only for those who get in the game.” While the upside for mHealth is huge, access to and engagement with the communications platforms, programs and tools will be barriers to mass adoption of Participatory Health in the short term.