Searching for health information online: characteristics of online health seekers


S Gallagher, Research and Information Analyst, Mental Health Research Unit, Health Research Board, Knockmaun House, Lower Mount Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. Tel: 01-2345-220 Fax: 01-661-2214 Email:


Objective To investigate the use of, and willingness to use, the internet for health information purposes in Ireland, with a particular focus on the demographic and mental health of users and non-users.

Methods Data from the Health Research Board National Psychological Wellbeing and Distress Survey were analyzed. This telephone survey included 2711 adults aged 18 years and over living in private households in Ireland. Internet use was measured using three items: past use, use specifically for health information, and willingness to use the internet in the future. Current psychological wellbeing was measured using the 12-item General Health Questionnaire. In addition, mental health problems in the previous year were measured. Sociodemographic variables examined included age, gender, employment status, and education.

Results Online health-seeking differed significantly by gender, age, employment status, and educational level. A substantial proportion of internet users with poor mental health were found to have searched for health information online. A high willingness to use the internet for health information in the future by non-users was reported.

Conclusion This study has shown that those with mental health problems use the internet to search for health information more often than those who have not experienced such problems. It has also shown that there is still a digital divide in terms of online health seeking, which is influenced by age, gender, education, and employment status. These findings highlight the need to address access, technological, psychological, and perceptual issues that may present barriers to the use of online health seeking.