People with stigmatized illnesses often avoid seeking health care and education. The internet may be a useful health education and outreach tool for this group. This study examined patterns of internet use for health information among those with and without stigmatized illnesses.
A national survey of internet users in the USA was conducted. Respondents who self-reported a stigmatized condition - defined as anxiety, depression, herpes, or urinary incontinence - were compared to respondents who reported having at least one other chronic illness, such as cancer, heart problems, diabetes, and back pain. The analytical sample consisted of 7014 respondents. Cross-sectional associations between stigmatized illness and frequency of internet use for information about health care, use of the internet for communication about health, changes in health care utilization after internet use, and satisfaction with the internet were determined.
After controlling for a number of potential confounders, those with stigmatized illnesses were significantly more likely to have used the internet for health information, to have communicated with clinicians about their condition using the internet, and to have increased utilization of health care based on information found on the internet, than those with non-stigmatized conditions. Length of time spent online, frequency of internet use, satisfaction with health information found on the internet, and discussion of internet findings with health care providers did not significantly differ between the two groups.
Results from this survey suggest that the internet may be a valuable health communication and education tool for populations who are affected by stigmatized illnesses.