2023 CHAS: Sources of Medical Information

Doctors remained trusted sources, but internet was a major influence

April 25, 2024

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wave of social media-driven vaccine skepticism, much has been made about spread of internet-fueled misinformation driving health care decisions.

But data from the 2023 Colorado Health Survey showed that most Coloradans still relied on doctors or other health care professionals for medical information.

For the first time, the CHAS asked respondents what sources they consult when they have a question about their health. Their answers can help providers and public health professionals understand how they can best reach communities with critical health information and where they need to focus their efforts when it comes to combatting misinformation.

Doctors Remained the Go-To Source. More than four in five Coloradans (80.5%), an estimated 4.5 million people, listed doctors or other medical professionals as sources of medical information. Respondents were provided with a list of potential sources and could select as many as they wanted.

Although doctors were selected most frequently, the internet ranked second with more than half (53.6%) of respondents selecting it, indicating that Google searches or popular medical websites are key sources when people are trying to understand symptoms or make health care decisions. The survey offered social media as a separate option, and fewer than 1 in 20 (4.1%) Coloradans selected that option.

Family members and friends were also key sources of health information (37.0%), followed by nurse advice or other help lines (24.6%). 

Notably, just 6.7% of Coloradans relied on government agencies, possibly indicating a mistrust or skepticism that emerged or was heightened during the pandemic response. Mass media rated even lower, with 3.4% turning to podcasts and 1.9% to television or radio. Finally, less than 1% of Coloradans relied on community or religious leaders as sources of health care information.

Information sources varied little across race/ethnicity. In general, the trends among information sources were not significantly influenced by the respondent’s race, although some differences did emerge. Hispanic or Latino Coloradans were less likely (73.8%) than white (82.5%) or Black or African American Coloradans (81.3) to rely on doctors. And Black or African American Coloradans were less likely (22.8%) to look to family or friends than white (37.9%) or Latino respondents (33.1%). Additionally, white Coloradans (58.2%) and those who selected a race other than white, Black, or Latino (57.6%) were more likely to rely on the internet than Black (36.0%) or Latino Coloradans (40.3%).

Young adults reported some differences. Younger adults ages 19-29 seemed to buck the trend, with just 66.5% reporting that they rely on doctors — the smallest of any age group. Similarly, this group was more likely to rely on family and friends (59.3%) and had a slightly higher incidence of relying on social media (9.2%). The youngest Coloradans, whose parents are most likely making health decisions on their behalf, were the most likely to get information from doctors (87.8%) and had the highest incidence of nurse advice or help line use (42.8%). This shows that when parents have question, they’re reaching out to doctors and nurses.

Rural residents were less likely to use Internet, help lines. Very few differences emerged when comparing Coloradans by geography. Rural Coloradans were less likely to rely on the internet (46.7%) than their urban counterparts (54.7%). Urban Coloradans were also more likely to consult help lines (25.9%) than rural Coloradans (16.9%). This difference might highlight an opportunity to better promote the availability of such help lines, which could lessen the need for rural residents to travel to medical offices for routine issues or concerns.

Access for the uninsured. Less than half of uninsured Coloradans (47.5%) got their health care information from doctors. That’s not surprising, since most people need insurance to access a doctor. But it does highlight another dimension of the access-to-care problem. In the absence of advice from trained providers, uninsured people were much more likely to turn to social media for information (10.6%).   

Culturally responsive care. The CHAS asked respondents if they had specific needs that impacted the type of health care they needed. This could range from a chronic condition to experience with homelessness or domestic violence or a need for information in a language other than English. Data showed that those who needed special or culturally competent care were nearly as likely (78.7%) as the state average (80.5%) to rely on doctors but were also much more likely to rely on other sources. Among this group, 60.6% said they relied on the internet, 45.3% said they relied on family or friends (45.3%), and 8.4% said they relied on social media. These were all higher than the statewide average indicating that Coloradans who need culturally competent care are more likely to seek health care information from other sources. This highlights a need for the state’s medical providers to ensure that they can respond to patients’ unique needs. 

The big picture. Doctors and other medical professionals remain the main source of medical information for most Coloradans, but their jobs are getting harder as they must ensure that their guidance isn’t undercut by competing messages from the myriad sources their patients consult. Medical and public health professionals can help ensure that their messages are reinforced by pointing their patients to reliable online sources. Providers and public health agencies can try to tailor accurate and reliable messages to patients’ family members, who ranked as the third most common source for medical information in the survey.