What health information do women search for online?

Joe McCaffrey

Joseph McCaffrey, Technology Insights

Women are often the health care decision-makers in the home and drive about two-thirds of health care spending. Although it is hard to quantify the return on investment regarding women’s services and online health information, it’s clear that women are increasingly going online to answer their most pressing health questions.

  • For more on the current state of women's health programs and what your hospital should do to stay up to date, check out our "Outlook for Women's Health" webconference.

Staying abreast of the latest ways in which consumers are using online health information is essential for planners attempting to attract the savvy online consumer. Surveys by the Pew Internet and American Life Project between 2008 and 2010 found that 83% of Internet users have looked online for health information. A similar 2008 study showed that:

  • 58% of Internet users had looked for online health information within the past year.
  • 86% of women with Internet access had searched for health information online.
  • 75% of men with Internet access had searched for health information online.
  • 29% of smartphone users had used their phone to search for health information—a possible barometer for patients’ demand for fast answers to pressing health questions.

Health-related searches hard to define

Most Internet search information is general in nature, showing trends across different age and gender demographics. This—plus the difficulty of isolating health-related searches, specifically—makes it challenging to identify what women are searching for within the health care space.

A person searching for the term “stress,” for example, might be looking for anything from medical treatments to personal advice blogs. As a result, most research in this area involves surveys that ask women what health information they seek online.

Top searches for specific health terms

Without dividing by gender, Google and Yahoo search data identifies the following as the five most searched-for health-related terms, according to a CNN report:

  • Herpes
  • Pregnancy
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Breast cancer

Planners should note that two of these are uniquely female-related, and that heart disease and depression are more common in women than men.

Five common categories of online health information searches by women

Focusing on women specifically, one survey of approvimately 1,000 U.S. female Intenet users under age 70 identified the five most common categories of women's health searches:

  • Weight management and fitness—especially weight loss, exercise, and general wellness
  • Health conditions and symptoms—particularly depression, bipolar disorder, fibromylagia, and gall bladder symptoms
  • Physician lookup—most often a doctor search in one's community
  • WebMD—either targeting the main WebMD site or one of its articles
  • Health insurance—most frequently for benefits explanations

Pregnancy and the Internet

One study of 600 pregnant women, meanwhile, found that 94% used the Internet to supplement the health information provided by their health care provider across a 12-week period. Additionally, 83% of survey respondents said that information found online influenced their pregnancy-related health care decision-making.

Approximately half of respondents noted that they searched online for health information to compensate for shortfalls in the quality of information provided by—or in the amount of time spent with—their physicians.

Implications for hospital website design

Hospitals are in a position to supplement physician information, and some have developed online resources to which physicians can direct their patients for more detailed health information.

That said, tailoring a website to the needs of current and prospective patients can be challenging for hospital administrators and website design specialists. It is extremely difficult to measure web design’s implications for downstream revenue, and we know little about the utilization of hospital-specific websites versus general medical information websites with the resources to cover a wider array of health information.

Given that many hospitals and health systems are incapable of maintaining a truly encyclopedic database of health information, it is more important that they focus on providing detailed information about the treatments they offer and their physicians, and how those map to patients’ specific health complaints.

On the topic of weight loss, for example, instead of simply grouping bariatric surgery under the surgery department section of a webpage—whil0065 putting nutrition classes under the wellness classes section—hospitals would be wise to create a “weight loss management” section to group like services and make the website more navigable for patients.

Planners can also use information on top search terms to shape their approach, designing pages that bring together information on popular topics and related medical services. For women specifically, planners should consider dedicated pages addressing conditions such as breast cancer, weight management, heart disease, and depression.

Finally, we know that, as smartphone use further increases, it will be even more important for hospitals to optimize their websites for a variety of devices.