Health Information Underload for Dial-Up Users

While the World Wide Web is open to anyone who can access it, the technology used to access its information appears to be resulting in a have-and-have-not situation, specifically among those who turn to the Web for health-related information.

That is the definitive statement in a newly published article written by Steve A. Rains, an assistant professor in The University of Arizona�s communication department.

Inequities in heath care already exist based on age, race, class, geographic location and other variables.

In this digital age that has inevitably come with a digital divide, Rains is suggesting yet another form of inequity -- and it comes down to whether a person accesses the Internet with a broadband or dial-up connection.

"There have been a lot of scholars looking at the digital divide and how certain segments of our population don�t have access to new technology" Rains said.

"I�ve noticed that this divide may be expanding to broadband," he said, noting that the divide has referred to those with Internet access and those without and also those who do not know how to use the Internet.

And it's not only about access, but quality as well.

His article, "Health at High Speed: Broadband Internet Access, Health Communication, and the Digital Divide," was published in this month's June issue of Communication Research.

"His work is important right now because the Internet is an extremely common mechanism for people to gain information and represents a real change in the way things used to be in our society," said Chris Segrin, head of the UA communication department.

Rains suggests that given the slow speed of dial-up connection, relative to broadband, people who are using the older technology are likely to avoid using the Internet to seek out information related to their health. "Despite the potential of the Internet, the opportunities afforded by it may not be available to all Americans," he wrote in his article, later explaining that some people prefer to avoid the amount of time loading takes.

His research has implications for other scholars and also health-related organizations that maintain informational Web sites.

Also, as he pointed out in his article, inequities are "antithetical to the U.S. government�s telecommunication policy of universal service, which is rooted in the assumption that access to information is a fundamental right and aimed at creating affordable access to information services for all Americans."

Dial-Up Users More Often Older, Rural

With the increased popularity and promotion of broadband, particularly since 2000, Rains set out to determine whether Internet connectivity could have an influence over the amount of health information an individual could access.

To do so, he evaluated data in the 2005 Health Information National Trends Survey, which was compiled by the National Cancer Institute.

One of the numerous objectives for the survey was to determine how adults in the United States used the Internet to access health information. Respondents were asked if they sought information for themselves or others, if they purchased medication, participated in a support group or contacted their provider online.

Rains found that people with broadband tended to search for medical information and participate in support groups more often than those with dial-up.

Despite the discourse that suggests the digital divide is shrinking as more people turn away from dial-up and jump on broadband connections, Rains said there is still much to be concerned about.

With an aging population, an increased effort to aid rural communities and with the increased reliance on the Internet to market and inform the populace, this is a topic that cannot be ignored.

"Essentially, I found that there are gaps in access to broadband, and this is important because, if you have dial-up, Web sites have to be pretty basic," said Rains, whose research has focused on ways that people use new technologies to seek out information.

With high-speed Internet, Web sites with Flash technology, large files and videos or audio on automatic play tend to load quickly and most often without a problem. But such sites tend to seize up computers on a dial-up connection. If not that, it takes a good deal of time for the sites to load.

"The goals of health promotions Web sites are to communicate to these groups. But if people can�t get access to these sites, then the organizations are missing their targets," he said.

Quality of Access Just as Important

Rains' article referenced research that has suggested the Internet has been used to "reduce health disparities by providing medical information and services to those without insurance or who live in rural areas without close proximity to a health care practitioner."

But his findings also suggest "access, alone, may not be enough. The quality of one�s access also matters."