Doctoral graduate examines patterns in how people search for health information online

Susan Perez, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Susan Perez

Within the past year, 72 percent of all Internet users searched for health information online, according to a Pew Internet Project report. Susan Perez, who recently graduated from the Nursing Science and Health-Care Leadership Doctor of Philosophy Program at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, looked past the statistics. She wanted to understand how users navigate the Internet to determine their illness. What she learned from their information-seeking strategies could prompt developers of health websites to create better tools for people searching online for the answers to their health problems.

“I was fascinated by people who have these big health decisions to make, who because of necessity, turn to this crazy thing we call the Internet to make those decisions,” Perez said. “I was curious how they gathered evidence on their symptoms, how they tested their symptoms against that information and whether they sought treatment.”

Perez is not a nurse but earned her master’s degree in public health. She sought input from participants 12-to-35 years old, who admitted to searching online for health information within the past year and who experienced barriers in their access to care, whether uninsured, underinsured or lacking socio-economic resources. Perez presented two scenarios from which participants could conduct a search. One was consistent with the flu, the other with bacterial meningitis.

“Some were very methodical, going through the process of investigating symptoms and digging deeper to see if they fit what they were feeling,” Perez said. “The other approach was one of self-diagnosis before the Internet search, followed by a quick treatment-seeking search with little attention paid to exploring symptoms.”

Perez concluded that the quality of health searches on the Internet could be improved through consumer education and the incorporation of decision-making tools into health websites. Now a Quality, Safety and Comparative Effectiveness Research Training Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Nursing, Perez continues to investigate standards in online decision making and ways that websites can support consumers in making high-quality health-care decisions.

“The flexibility and interdisciplinary nature of the School of Nursing allowed me to pursue so many avenues in terms of a career, which kept presenting new opportunities for me,” Perez added. “Because of mentorship, guidance and my enthusiasm to pursue my own work, I’m embarking upon a future I would have never imagined prior to my doctorate work.”