The population of adults living with a disability or chronic disease comprises a relatively higher proportion of people over age 50 and people who do not use a computer on a regular basis.

New insights from the great researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project find that adults living with a disability or chronic illness are less likely than others to go online. However, once they go online, these people become what the Pew calls, “avid health consumers.”

Their latest health report, E-patients With a Disability or Chronic Disease, offers a lot of data into this overlooked group of e-patients. Here’s a list of the most popular health applications online for people with chronic illness and disabilities:

Sites with specific disease or medical problem, used by 73%
Certain medical treatment or procedure, used by 64%
Diet, nutrition, vitamins, supplements, used by 53%
Prescription or OTC drugs, used by 51%
Exercise or fitness, used by 46%
Alternative treatments or medicines, used by 42%.

It’s interesting to compare the net difference between the percent of people with chronic illness and disabilities versus the percent of people without, and how each group uses health information online. Here are the largest marked net differences, by online health feature:

Specific disease or medical problem 11%
Certain medical treatment or procedure 15%
Prescription or over-the-counter drugs 16%
Alternative treatments or medicines 17%
Depression, anxiety, stress, or mental health issues 9%
Experimental treatments or medicines 13%
Medicare or Medicaid 13%

Thus, e-patients managing chronic illness and disabilities are more interested in alternative treatments, medications and procedures (mainstream and experimental), and information on payment (Medicare and Medicaid).

Equal percentages of people — ill and well — search for sexual health information and information on drugs or alcohol. Sex, drugs, alcohol: these are health issues facing all of us, chronically ill, disabled, and the so-called “well.”

Here’s what’s so powerful about health care search in the unwell population: 3/4 of e-patients say the information they found in their last search affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition (vs. 55% of the well); and 69% of e-patients with chronic conditions say the information led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor (vs. 52% of other e-patients). That’s informed-empowerment.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The Pew researchers tell us that a lower percentage of people managing chronic illness and disabilities use the Internet for health search than people without disabilities. However, once people with chronic illness and disabilities begin to use the Internet for health search, they become “avid users.” The challenge, then: how to drive more people with chronic illness and disabilities to the Internet for information, support, and all of the other great experiences available to them online? Physicians (particularly specialists) can help by providing patients with useful websites germane to patients’ conditions. Information therapy drives toward this objective. Sites themselves can attract patients by channeling through patient advocacy, health associations. and other trusted third parties. Site content must be accessible, credible, and highly relevant so that e-patients can act on the information. Then word-of-mouth, patient-to-patient, friend-to-friend, goes to work.

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