"Virtuallly Informed"

The Internet in the Medical Field. Investigating the role and impact of the World Wide Web as health information source in the Austrian medical context (VIRINFO)

Duration: 03/2005 - 02/2009

Sponsors: Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung (FWF), Projektnummer P 18006

Project collaborators: Ulrike Felt; Lisa Gugglberger; Bernhard Höcher; Astrid Mager; Sonja Österreicher; Paul Ringler


Over the past decades information and communication technologies have gradually entered public and private spheres, restructuring them through new qualitative and quantitative possibilities of access to information as well as of exchange and interaction. In the medical field these changes seem to be especially relevant. Last but not least health information is among those topics people most often search for on the Internet.

Thus, a qualitative investigation of the consequences of availability and increasing use of the Internet as a health information source in the Austrian context is in the centre of this research project. Using the actor-network approach as theoretical framework and applying a range of various qualitative methodologies we will analyse in different settings:

  • the ways in which the virtual space of health information and communication is imagined, structured, networked and fed with content from the providers’ side;
  • how users move through the virtual space seeking for health information, what difficulties and barriers they meet as well as how they select, evaluate and integrate this information;
  • which role this more autonomous access to information plays in social relationships between patients and doctors;
  • how policy and mass-media discourses frame these developments.

The combination of very different perspectives allows a fine grained understanding of what happens when the Internet and the medical field meet and configure each other. Of particular interest will be to analyse which role gender, education, the degree of affectedness and Internet literacy play in positioning people in between the range of virtual health information and established medical practice.

Time schedule and results

We start the project by doing an extensive literature study and preparing the empirical work of the project. The empirical phase starts at the beginning of 2006 and goes for one year. This phase consists of an investigation of health information on the Web, scenario experiments with people surfing the Web, interviews with patients and doctors as well as an investigation of policy and media discourses around “eHealth”. Subsequently the analysis of the empirical data will be carried out, which will lead to a final report as well as a set of scientific publications. Moreover our final results will be presented at a closing event (anticipated in Spring 2008) and discussed with decision-makers, scientists and the public.

The examination of very different imaginations, expectations and changes at the interface of the Internet and medicine should contribute to a better comprehension and dialogue between different actors, who collectively shape future developments in this field.

The international advisory board for the project consists of Dr. Sarah Nettleton (Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York), Dr. Sally Wyatt (Amsterdam School of Communications Research, University of Amsterdam) and Prof. John Law (Professor and Acting Co-Head of Sociology Department, Lancaster University)

Project Results (German)