How consumers search for health information online

Image-Disease-Health-Keys-ID-10094991There is a lot of data on the numbers of people who search for online health information but what seems to be missing is a clearer picture of how many websites people go to for health information and why they go to so many websites.  Last summer I led some qualitative research for a biotech company to answer those questions.

How many health websites do users go to for health information ?

It largely depends on several factors including the seriousness of the health condition and whether they are searching for health information for themselves or for someone else.  What I found was that each health condition has its own unique market characteristics and no two are alike.  For example breast cancer and Type 1 diabetes patients are very connected via online communities and openly share and talk about living with their conditions.  However information on other health conditions, like Alzheimer’s and depression are not so connected online even though caregivers of patients with these health conditions desperately want and need support for both themselves and those in their care.


The other factor that is important in how many websites patients to is how they perceive the seriousness of the condition to their QUALITY of life.  Physicians may think, for example, that men with ED is no big deal but it can often lead to depression and other mental health problems.  This is why, I feel, it’s important for physicians to physically meet with patients and not just talk to them on the phone. A lot about health can be picked up by what patients don’t say as well as what they say.

Why do patients go to different health websites ?

By far the latest data shows that WebMD maintains a strong lead in visitors for online health information as Yahoo is falling like a rock in water.  But WebMD can often be confusing for many users and there are times when the depth of information can really overwhelm people.  Remember that consumers don’t have unlimited time online, they want the answers to their questions as they collect pieces of the healthcare puzzle.

During the research I found that patients go to different websites to learn as much as they can and tend to stay on websites that have health information that is both easy to understand and is laid out in a clear and intuitive way.  They also want to validate some of the information that they have with other websites.

Women are the primary users of online health information but you would never know that by the current content of drug websites
Women are the primary users of online health information but you would never know that by the current content of drug websites

Does social media play a big part ?

It does in that people might read what others post about health conditions but when it comes to trusting the health information on social media sites less than 5% of people actually use the information to make decisions.   However if you believe that taking statins will give you muscle pain and people on Twitter say that they have muscle pain as a result of taking a statin it may reinforce your belief that statins may not be right for you.

In summary..

Think of the search for health information online as a train stopping at a lot of stations along the way.  Comscore has shown that branded drug websites are used and do increase lift but that is like saying people who go to the Ford F-150 site are more likely to purchase a Ford pickup truck.  If you go to a branded website you are obviously interested in the product or health condition.

DTC marketers should look at the most viewed pages within their product websites.  Chances are that the page with safety information is going to be in the top 10.  They should also look at the bound rate for their website.  A high bounce rate means that you’re doing something wrong and today we can even look at bounce rates via paid media.


Finally remember that every health condition has a unique audience.  It is not logical to take shared information for an osteo product and apply it to a different health condition.  There is no substitute for good qualitative research.  Finally before throwing money into mobile apps look at your website analytics to determine how many people are coming to your website via mobile devices.  Your first priority should be to ensure your website is optimized for all mobile devices.