The Internet has now replaced doctors as the main source of health and medical information for US consumers, while in Europe many adults use a search engine rather than a health site when first looking for such information, new research reveals.

More than 145 million US adults now use the Internet to research health information, according to the studies by Manhattan Research. As health care coverage and even routine visits to the doctor become less affordable to many Americans, the Internet has this year emerged as the first line of defense for people seeking to manage their health care independently, says the firm.

Companies need to understand how consumers are using on-line sources to complement and replace traditional sources of health information as, in tough economic times, new media can offer cost-effective ways to reach and engage target audiences, it adds.

Meantime, European consumers are increasingly using search engines and the collaborative on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia to fill the gap created by the region-wide ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising to find information on diseases, symptoms and treatments which is relevant to their language and locality, the firm also reports. 157 million European adults searched the Internet for such information in the past 12 months, and many report that they turn to a search engine first, rather than going directly to a health site.

Wikipedia ranks as a top site used for health in most European countries surveyed by Manhattan, and it cautions health care companies that they should monitor local Wikipedia sites to ensure that brands and products are represented accurately, especially as most European consumers assume that they are already doing so.

“Of course it is important for companies to be vigilant in their approach to editing or altering Wikipedia entries. Making sure that content is complete is one thing - selective removal of content is clearly another,” warns Meredith Abreu Ressi, vice president of research at Manhattan.

- Bayer is now the leading pharmaceutical company web site in terms of visits by European consumers, followed by Roche and Pfizer, the firm reports.