Research Agenda — Women’s Health Information Seeking

Bethany McGowan, Medical Librarian, Purdue University

The literature surrounding women’s health information seeking has transformed in the past decade as growing access to the internet continues to influence how women look for information. Women tend to look for information online, then rely on their social networks, both online and in-person, to rank accuracy. Information seeking then is not a single skill but a set of practices centered on society and institutions, and heavily influenced by the authority of knowledge. Understanding issues surrounding the authority of knowledge, particularly how knowledge is constructed and created, is fundamental in understanding women’s health information seeking behavior (Papen, 2013).

Women heavily use the internet to make health decisions—to manage their health and the health of their families and to learn about diseases. Even in countries where males use the internet more than females, women use the internet more to find health information (Ahadzadeh, 2018), perhaps because women, especially mothers, have traditionally been responsible for the health of their families (Apple, 2012). While the internet is the most popularly used source for searching for health information, it is followed in popularity by personal consultations with friends, parents, health care providers, etc. Combining access to health resources on the web with interpersonal interactions via online social networking technologies has the potential to boost health consciousness and improve health personalization options (Hallyburton, 2014).

Health consciousness plays a significant role in determining if and how individuals use the internet for health information seeking. People who have a high level of health consciousness tend to have a more positive attitude towards using the internet for health information seeking (Ahadzadeh, 2018). Library services such as sending tailored text messages to target audiences with links to web resources have the potential to build health consciousness and encourage health information seeking amongst women who have not previously sought information online, a practice that can be adapted for different health conditions and adapted for specific communities (Dalrymple, 2013). Such services could be especially impactful in LGBTQ communities, as web-based information resources that support that community’s widely diverse needs have become more readily available (McKay, 2011).

In-person social networks also play a fundamental role in women’s health information seeking. For example, the information environment of interest groups and interest group literature is often overlooked or viewed as unreliable but could provide a critical assessment of who is included in literature, who is excluded, how tone is perceived by readers of different backgrounds, how target audiences react, and what is added when contrasted with traditional scholarly literature (Fountain, 2013). Outreach via in-person social networks could be especially impactful in communities where women lack access to internet resources and use their social  networks as a primary source for information.

Some areas for future research in women’s health information-seeking include:

Authority is constructed and contextual. How can librarians better understand the link between the authority of knowledge and women’s health information seeking behavior? How might this understanding aid in the design of services that support women’s health information seeking.

The internet has become many women’s first source and primary source for health information. What role can librarians play in encouraging a critical appraisal of online health information?

Health consciousness plays a major role in women’s attitude towards seeking health information online. How can librarians meet the information needs of women who aren’t comfortable using the internet to look for health information or don’t have access to web resources?

Full citations for all works cited in this essay can be located on the Bibliography of Scholarship on Women and Gender Studies Librarianship.

This edition posted February 2019.