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Increasing numbers in Britain seek health information online

Oxford Internet Institute survey finds 71 per cent have turned to the internet for health reasons

The number of people in Britain who have gone online to search for health information doubled in the last six years, according to a new survey.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) found 71 per cent of people had used the internet at least once to find health information in 2011, compared to 37 per cent in 2005.

The intervening years saw a number of public health scares, including bird and then swine flu, but also rapid technological change as the number of broadband internet connections and mobile internet devices rose in Britain.

The headline focus of this year's OII survey of users and non-users of the internet in Britain was the emergence of “next generation users” - those connecting to the internet using multiple devices.

When it came to health, 74 per cent of next generation users had been online for information, versus 69 per cent of first generation users (those accessing the internet through a personal computer at home).

OII also found that 48 per cent of next generation users said they had found information online that helped improve their health, versus 37 per cent of first generation users.

A department within the Social Sciences Division of the University of Oxford, the OII is the nearest thing the UK has to a Pew Internet and has conducted its survey on internet use, access and attitudes every two years since 2003.

Its 2011 report, released last week, noted that next generation users can be found in all age groups, and cited dramatic shifts over the last year in the portability and range of devices available as the key drivers behind this emerging change.

But such connected users haven't appeared overnight. OII said their numbers grew from 20 per cent in 2007, to 32 per cent in 2009 and then to 44 per cent in 2011.

Against this growth the OII balanced the recognition of a continued digital divide in Britain, a worrying trend given moves to make government services digital by default, though it appears this won't extend to healthcare services.

This is certainly for the best, given that the OII's survey said internet access remains limited to just under three quarters (73%) of Britons aged 14 years of age or older. Unsurprisingly the elderly, the retired and the poorly educated tend to be least likely to use the internet, and disability, such as health-related problems, is also a key source of digital exclusion.

Nevertheless, as the OII's survey shows – and the Department of Health's head of digital communication Stephen Hale argues here - exclusion is not a reason to ignore the benefits of digital engagement.

The latest Oxford Internet Survey questioned 2,057 people between February and March. It is available online here.

28th November 2011

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