Parents use the internet cautiously to find out about their children’s health problems and electronic information does not undermine their confidence in health professionals, according to research from York University.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was based on an analysis of existing health resources available on the internet for childhood eczema, asthma and diabetes; a survey of 358 households with children with one or more of these conditions; and follow-up qualitative interviews with 69 parents and 16 children. The results indicated that nearly 80% of the sample had used the internet, and 61% of households with a child with diabetes had looked the condition up.

Dr Sarah Nettleton, who led the research, said: “Patients don’t use the internet in isolation; they add it to routine sources of information such as family, friends, books, magazines and other media. Our findings also suggest that people are sensible about what they find online and there is not necessarily a need for an extensive system of kite marks to guarantee the quality of e-health information. Having said this, we also found that people appreciated having websites recommended by health professionals.”

The findings reveal an overwhelming sense that people trust health professionals. They also demonstrate that most people are cautious about the potential dangers of health information on the internet, although they are convinced that they can differentiate between valuable information and "rubbish". “Our data suggests that patients think only ‘other people’ may be misled by suspect health information,” Nettleton commented.

The research also casts some doubts on the view that the internet creates a digital divide in which more affluent citizens improve their lot by gaining access to information while poor people become more deprived. The families interviewed lived in three areas with very different levels of poverty, health and access to the internet.

The research found many examples of poorer households making highly productive use of electronic information as well as other examples of richer households who made little or no use of such online resources. “Not surprisingly, internet access was greater among the better off,” says Nettleton. “But it is a mistake to assume that such a "digital divide" directly ‘maps’ to other forms of social advantage or disadvantage.”

It is not just a matter of who does and who does not have access to the internet. Just as important nowadays is the manner in which e-health resources are accessed, assessed and acted upon, the researchers conclude.