Evaluating the Process of Online Health Information Searching: A Qualitative Approach to Exploring Consumer Perspectives

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Background: The Internet is a common resource that patients and consumers use to access health-related information. Multiple practical, cultural, and socioeconomic factors influence why, when, and how people utilize this tool. Improving the delivery of health-related information necessitates a thorough understanding of users’ searching-related needs, preferences, and experiences. Although a wide body of quantitative research examining search behavior exists, qualitative approaches have been under-utilized and provide unique perspectives that may prove useful in improving the delivery of health information over the Internet.

Objective: We conducted this study to gain a deeper understanding of online health-searching behavior in order to inform future developments of personalizing information searching and content delivery.

Methods: We completed three focus groups with adult residents of Olmsted County, Minnesota, which explored perceptions of online health information searching. Participants were recruited through flyers and classifieds advertisements posted throughout the community. We audio-recorded and transcribed all focus groups, and analyzed data using standard qualitative methods.

Results: Almost all participants reported using the Internet to gather health information. They described a common experience of searching, filtering, and comparing results in order to obtain information relevant to their intended search target. Information saturation and fatigue were cited as main reasons for terminating searching. This information was often used as a resource to enhance their interactions with health care providers.

Conclusions: Many participants viewed the Internet as a valuable tool for finding health information in order to support their existing health care resources. Although the Internet is a preferred source of health information, challenges persist in streamlining the search process. Content providers should continue to develop new strategies and technologies aimed at accommodating diverse populations, vocabularies, and health information needs.