Digital Divide Affects Individuals’ Access to Health Information Online
Although "significant percentages" of Americans are using the Internet to get health information, a Health Affairs report notes that there exists a "substantial digital divide ... with lower-income blacks especially affected." Representatives from National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government prepared and analyzed data in parallel telephone surveys of 1,506 adults ages 18 and older and 625 children between the ages of 10 and 17. In general, survey analysis indicates that computer use "has become commonplace for most adults under age 60." However, there are "gaps in use by income, education and race," the report notes. For instance, Americans with annual incomes lower than $30,000 are "much less likely" to use a computer or have Internet access than those with annual incomes of $50,000 or more. Gaps between blacks' and whites' computer use "are largely a function of income so they tend to disappear" when blacks and whites are compared at higher income levels. For children, 68% use a computer at home at least once per week, while 58% use a computer at least once a week at school. Overall, "access to and use of school computers and the Internet appear much more similar across all children," the report notes, but it adds that the survey could not interpret whether "equal access is the same as equal experience." Although the digital divide also affects individuals' access to health information, that divide "tends to disappear" once people have access to the Internet. Of the 53% of survey respondents under age 60 who have access to the Internet, more than half are using it to obtain health or medical information. Furthermore, among all respondents with Internet access, there "are no signficant" differences between those above or below age 60 in seeking health information. In addition, for individuals ages 60 and younger with Internet access, there are no "significant differences" between those seeking health information in regard to income or education level or race. Women, however, are more likely than men to use the Internet at home to obtain health information. Sixty-three percent of respondents under age 60 who use computers at home to obtain health or medical information are looking for "information about how to treat a disease (they) or a family member have." Furthermore, 60% are seeking "information about medicines or prescription drugs; 53% "information about ways to prevent illnesses"; 28% "information about a health care provider"; and 19% "information about sexual health issues." As for children, only about two in 10 children use the Internet "to get health or medical information." The study also examined respondents' trust and privacy "concerns," finding that overall 53% of adults are "distrustful of information they find on the Internet." In particular, blacks are more likely than whites to distrust information over the Internet and to be concerned about Internet privacy. Divide Might Shrink The report concludes that "there is great potential for using computers and the Internet to make health information available to a wide audience," particularly among "older Americans, who are the biggest users of health care." As for the digital divide, the report calls the divide between lower-income blacks and whites in terms of computer ownership "perplexing," but notes that distrust, lack of pertinent information, lack of exposure to computers in everyday life and "possible cultural biases against being seen as a computer 'geek'" might contribute to that divide. But the report notes that the divide "may shrink in the near future," as the number of computer users with lower incomes is increasing more rapidly than the number of overall computer users. The report concludes that the existence of digital divides "has implications for the future of computer- accessible health information," adding that "providing relevant health information and addressing trust and privacy concerns" are important for the variety of races and ethnicities that use the Internet (Brodie et al., "Health Information, the Internet and the Digital Divide," Health Affairs, December/January issue).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.