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Brief 16: Trends in Cancer Information Seeking

In this HINTS Brief, we discuss trends in cancer information seeking.

A Decade of Change in Health Information Technologies and Patient Engagement

The past few decades have witnessed dramatic changes in the health communication and informatics environment. Innovation has expanded the availability and diversity of communication channels and technologies, significantly increasing access to health information. The public has shown interest in these technological changes, and the evolving health communication and informatics environment appears to be changing the way individuals and populations engage in their health and health care.

Although information technology has considerable potential to accelerate evidenced-based efforts to reduce the cancer burden through personalized communication about risk, prevention behavior, social support, and individualized networks of care, questions remain regarding population engagement with technology to support their health and health information needs. In this HINTS Brief, we describe trends in cancer and health information seeking across time and document which information sources are most used and most trusted by Americans.

Cancer Information Seeking

According to HINTS data collected in 2008, nearly 40% of the U.S. population (39.3%) has searched for cancer information at some point. The two most frequently used sources of cancer information were the Internet (55.3%) and health care providers (24.9%).

Have you ever looked for information about cancer from any source?*

Have you ever looked for information about cancer from any source? d

The most recent time you looked for cancer information, where did you go first?*

The most recent time you looked for cancer information, where did you go first?d

Health Information National Trends Survey, 2007 (HINTS, 2007); URL:; HINTS 2007 database, National Cancer Institute, DCCPS, Behavioral Research Program, Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch. Data collection January-May, 2008; Public data release February 2009.

*Due to rounding, percentages may not equal 100.

What Sources Do Americans Trust?

A recent HINTS publication by Hesse and colleagues published in the New England Journal of Medicine examines data across three administrations of HINTS (2002–2008) to explore the public’s use of and trust in sources of health information, with a particular focus on physicians and the Internet. A striking finding from this research is that in spite of rapid increases in the availability of health information on the Internet, the public’s trust in online health information has decreased over time. Meanwhile, trust in physicians as a source of health information has remained high and actually increased from 2002 to 2008. Despite the public’s reported skepticism of online content, health information seeking on the Internet remains high. Moreover, HINTS data suggest that access to online health information does not erode trust in physicians and health care providers. Rather, trust in providers may actually be increasing because consumers depend on their health care providers to make sense of health information found online.

HINTS data also show an increase in online communication between health care providers and their patients. In 2002, just 7% of the population used e-mail or the Internet to communicate with their health care provider; however, this number steadily increased to 9.6% in 2005 and 13.5% in 2008.

Trust in Source for Cancer or Health Information

Trust in Source for Cancer or Health Information d

Quick Facts

  • Almost one-half of the U.S. population has looked for cancer information.
  • Trust in the Internet as a source of health or cancer information has decreased over time.
  • Trust in health care providers as a source of health or cancer information has increased over time.
  • Use of e-mail and the Internet to communicate with doctors and health care providers is increasing.

Use of and Trust in Health Information Sources: Differences by Income and Education

HINTS 2005 data reveal interesting differences in use of and trust in health information sources by key sociodemographic characteristics.


Although cancer information seeking is pervasive and increasing across the population, adults with lower incomes are consistently less likely than adults with higher incomes to report ever looking for cancer information from any source. Approximately 40% of adults with incomes less than $25,000 per year have ever sought cancer information, while more than 60% of adults with incomes more than $75,000 per year say they have. Trust in health information sources follows a similar income pattern, with those making more than $75,000 per year reporting a lot of trust in doctors (75.6%) and the Internet (20.1%) and those making less than $25,000 per year being less likely to report a lot of trust in doctors (60.5%) and the Internet (16.5%).


Adults with higher levels of education are also more likely to report seeking cancer information and trusting health information from doctors and the Internet than those with lower levels of education. For example, 64% of college graduates say that they have looked for cancer information, compared with 23.9% of those with less than a high school education.While 59.8% of individuals with less than a high school education report a lot of trust in doctors, 74.8% of college graduates do. For trust in the Internet as a source of health information, 20.6% of college graduates report a lot of trust in the Internet compared to 17.3% of those with less than a high school education.

How Can This Inform Your Work?

The trends in health information seeking observed across the last decade point to interesting challenges and opportunities for improving population health and realizing the potential of health information technology.

  • Individuals with access to health care should be encouraged to proactively engage in health management and disease prevention within the health care setting and beyond.
  • Health information technology can support and empower individuals by enabling them to own and manage their health information.
  • As highly trusted sources of information, health care providers can employ health information technology to deliver personalized advice and to support patient engagement.
  • Health services researchers and behavioral scientists can utilize information technology in their efforts to develop and implement research protocols that support the discovery of more cost-effective systems for care delivery.

References Used in This HINTS Brief

Hesse BW, Moser RP, Rutten LJ. Surveys of physicians and electronic health information. N Engl J Med. 2010 Mar 4;362(9):859-60.

Hesse BW, Nelson DE, Kreps GL, Croyle RT, Arora NK, Rimer BK, Viswanath K. Trust and sources of health information: the impact of the Internet and its implications for health care providers: findings from the first Health Information National Trends Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2005 Dec 12-26;165(22):2618-24.

Viswanath K. Science and society: the communications revolution and cancer control. Nat Rev Cancer. 2005 Oct;5(10):828-35.

View related questionsQuestions used in this Brief

For More Information on Cancer

August 2010