The Pew Research Center's new report provides some key insights into the use of technology across the globe for those involved in digital health.
A new report by the Pew Research Center has explored how technology is used across 32 emerging and developing nations. For those engaged in the digital health space, these conclusions present some interesting insights into questions around internet access, online activities and the impact of this technology on people’s lives. Here are our primary takeaways from this study.
Many people in “emerging and developing nations are left out of the internet revolution entirely,” the authors remind us.
“A median of less than half across the 32 countries surveyed use the internet at least occasionally,” the report reveals, adding that “usage rates vary considerably,” as does computer ownership, which varies “from as little as 3% in Uganda to 78% in Russia.”
Of course, as the study states, “accessing the internet no longer requires a fixed line to a computer.” But understanding – and accommodating – variances in usage and devices is essential for digital health providers who need to tailor their efforts to the devices and tools that potential beneficiaries have access to.
In many markets this means mobile; and it may surprise you to find that “in some countries, such as Chile and China, smartphone usage rates are comparable to that of the United States.”
Across the States, Pew found that 58% of respondents owned a smartphone, a figure that may be lower than you expected. More widely, the report finds that “smartphones – and the mobile access to the internet that they make possible in some locations – are not nearly as common as conventional cell phones.”
This conclusion is pertinent to health providers in both developed and emerging markets, providing a handy reminder that apps and smartphone orientated services are still out of reach for the majority of most populations.
Once connected to the internet, online users across the globe actively embrace the opportunities for socializing that this technology affords. To that effect, contacting family and friends and using social networks are the most popular online activities undertaken by internet users.
Interestingly, getting health information – or accessing government and service information – is a more popular online pursuit than activities related to employment, education or e-commerce. This is good news for digital health providers and government agencies, who often wish to communicate public health (and other) messages to citizens.
Pew’s data also reinforces the importance of having good, accurate, health information online, as clearly there is a demand for it. This is particularly true in Eastern Europe and Latin America, where internet users were among the most likely to go online for health information.
In contrast, internet users in the 7 African countries surveyed were all less likely than the world average to undertake this activity. Usage of the web for health information in parts of Asia, such as India and Bangladesh, was also low, although globally, Vietnam had the highest level of users going online for health information. This finding would be interesting to explore in more detail at some juncture.
Interestingly, the report also found variances in terms of accessing health information online within individual countries. For example, “female internet users in Poland (72%), Russia (68%), and Ukraine (68%) are more likely than male users (56%, 56% and 59% respectively) to access this online medical data.” The reason for this difference may be the product of women searching for health data for both themselves and their families, with men perhaps less likely to undertake this type of activity.
Given the global popularity of social media identified in the report, Pew’s findings also highlight the potential need for health organisations to be active across social channels.
Globally, more than 8 in 10 internet users are active social networkers. The highest percentage of social networkers – as a percentage of the internet population – was found in the Philippines, with 93% of online adults using social networks.
“But high levels of use are found in all the countries surveyed, including 88% of internet users in Kenya and Venezuela, as well as 87% in Chile, Senegal, and Tunisia,” the report finds.
In contrast, “the only countries surveyed where less than two-thirds of online adults use social networking sites are India, where 65% of internet users say they use social networks, Poland (62%), and China (58%).”
That said, we do of course need to remember that internet penetration varies greatly across these different countries. So, although internet users may be active social networkers, the percentage of the total population we are talking about may, in some cases, be quite small. In countries like India and China these lower percentage levels still translate into millions of views.
Not surprisingly, “internet usage,” the report notes, tends to be “more common among the young, well-educated and English speakers.”
The variance between smartphone ownership and internet usage among respondents aged 18-34 versus those aged 35+ is often quite stark, meaning that health providers will have to continue to use a variety of analogue and digital tools to reach difference demographics.
The results of Pew’s study, which are based on face-to-face interviews with 36,619 adults across these countries, revealed positive attitudes toward the impact of the internet on education, personal relationships, and the economy, but also highlighted considerable concerns about the influence of this technology on areas such as politics and morality.
For digital health providers, the most notable conclusions from this part of Pew’s study is the finding that “general populations in 32 emerging and developing nations say this trend has a good influence on education, as well as on personal relationships and economics.”
With health-related activity – and benefits – potentially being integrated across these areas, there does seem to be a general receptiveness to the potential of the internet to affect positive change that can deliver health outcomes. This conclusion is also manifest in the volume of online searches for health information we saw earlier.
And perhaps, not surprisingly, “one major subgroup that sees the internet positively is internet users themselves.”
Internet users are much more likely to agree that the web has a positive influence on personal relationships and education, a finding that is in line with the experiential nature of this technology.
Given how difficult and abstract the concept of “the internet” can be, this reinforces the need to support communities to get online and try it for themselves. As Pew’s research shows, once people are connected, they’re more likely to use the internet for a variety of outcomes, and have a more positive view of the benefits that it can potentially bring them.
These lessons may well be applicable to the digital health arena too.
If we can help potential users to engage with emerging digital health tools in the first instance, then they may well take those baby steps that could ultimately translate into a lifetime’s digital health journey.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.