Background. Online health information (OHI) is widely available and consulted by many people in Western countries to gain health advice. The main goal of the present study is to provide a detailed account of the experiences among people from various demographic backgrounds living in high-income countries, who have used OHI.
Design and methods. Thematic analysis of 165 qualitative semi-structured interviews conducted among OHI users residing in Australia, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland was performed.
Results. The lived experience of people using OHI seem not to differ across countries. The interviews show that searches for OHI are motivated from curiosity, sharing of experiences, or affirmation for actions already taken. Most people find it difficult to appraise the information, leading them to cross-check sources or discuss OHI with others. OHI seems to impact mostly some specific types of health behaviors, such as changes in diet or physical activity, while it only plays a complementary role for more serious health concerns. Participants often check OHI before seeing their GP, but are reluctant to discuss online content with health care personnel due to expected negative reception.
Conclusions. This study adds to the body of knowledge on eHealth literacy by demonstrating how OHI affects overall health behavior, strengthens patients' ability to understand, live with, and prepare themselves for diverse health challenges. The increasing digitalization of health communication and health care calls for further research on digital divides and patient-professional relations. Health care professionals should acknowledge OHI seeking and engage in discussions with patients to enable them to appreciate OHI, and to support shared decision making in health care. The professionals can utilize patient's desire to learn as a resource for health prevention, promotion or treatment, and empowerment.