The recent public health risks arising from bioterrorist threats and outbreaks of infectious diseases like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) highlight the challenges of effectively communicating accurate health information to an alarmed public.
To evaluate use of the Internet in accessing information related to the anthrax scare in the United States in late 2001, and to strategize about the most effective use of this technology as a communication vehicle during times of public health crises.
A paper-based survey to assess how individuals obtained health information relating to bioterrorism and anthrax during late 2001.We surveyed 500 randomly selected patients from two ambulatory primary care clinics affiliated with the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
The response rate was 42%. While traditional media provided the primary source of information on anthrax and bioterrorism, 21% (95% CI, 15% - 27%) of respondents reported searching the Internet for this information during late 2001. Respondents reported trusting information from physicians the most, and information from health websites slightly more than information from any traditional media source. Over half of those searching the Internet reported changing their behavior as a result of information found online.
Many people already look to the Internet for information during a public health crisis, and information found online can positively influence behavioral responses to such crises. However, the potential of the Internet to convey accurate health information and advice has not yet been realized. In order to enhance the effectiveness of public-health communication, physician practices could use this technology to pro-actively e-mail their patients validated information. Still, unless Internet access becomes more broadly available, its benefits will not accrue to disadvantaged populations.