The Prevalence of Online Health Information Seeking Among Patients in Scotland: A Cross-Sectional Exploratory Study

Julia Moreland, Tara French, Grant Cumming

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Background: Online health information seeking is an activity that needs to be explored in Scotland. While there are a growing number of studies that adopt a qualitative approach to this issue and attempt to understand the behaviors associated with online health information seeking, previous studies focusing on quantifying the prevalence and pattern of online health seeking in the United Kingdom have been based on Internet users in general.

Objective: This exploratory study sought to describe the prevalence of online health information seeking in a rural area of Scotland based on primary data from a patient population.

Methods: A survey design was employed utilizing self-completed questionnaires, based on the Pew Internet and American Life Project; questionnaires were distributed among adult patients in 10 primary care centers in a rural community in Scotland.

Results: A convenience sample of 571 (0.10% of the total population in Grampian, N=581,198) patients completed the questionnaire. A total of 68.4% (379/554) of patients had previously used the Internet to acquire health information. A total of 25.4% (136/536) of patients consulted the Internet for health information regarding their current appointment on the day surveyed; 34.6% (47/136) of these patients were influenced to attend their appointment as a result of that online health information. A total of 43.2% (207/479) of patients stated the health information helped improve their health and 67.1% (290/432) indicated that they had learned something new. A total of 34.0% (146/430) of patients talked to a health professional about the information they had found and 90.0% (376/418) reported that the information was useful. In total, 70.4% (145/206) of patients were concerned about obtaining health information online from reliable sources. A total of 67.1% (139/207) of patients were concerned that a health site may sell their personal information, yet only 6.7% (36/535) checked the privacy policy of the site visited. However, 27.9% (55/197) of patients were not concerned about their employer finding out what health sites they visited, whereas 37.5% (78/208) were concerned that others would find out.

Conclusions: The results suggest that online health information-seeking behavior influences offline health-related behavior among the population surveyed. Patient attitudes to online health information seeking were focused on issues relating to trust, reliability, privacy, and confidentiality. This study provides support for the growing phenomenon of an empowered, computer-literate, health information consumer, and the impact of this phenomenon must be considered in the context of the patient-health professional dynamic. The unpredictable nature of human thought and action in relation to this field of study requires an ongoing program of ethnographic research, both physical and virtual, within a Health Web Science framework. This study has provided a baseline of the prevalence of online health information seeking in the Grampian region of Scotland.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research: Research Protocols
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2015


  • Digital health
  • Information Seeking
  • healthcare


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