We all have a hypochondriac relative for whom the Information Age is really the Age of Worry. Case in point: those regular calls from my sister informing me that according to her latest midnight Google search, that harmless bump on her arm is really a symptom of a life-threatening malady.

A new study by the Pew Internet Project confirms the widespread use of the Internet for people like my sister; a whopping 80 percent of Internet users look online for health information, making it the third most popular online activity among those tracked by the study, trailing only e-mail and using search engines. Roughly 44 percent of Internet users look online for information about doctors and other health professionals; 36 percent look up information on hospitals and other medical facilities.

There are still economic barriers to online use, though; according to the survey, roughly 95 percent of adults in a household with $75,000 or more annual income are online, compared with only 57 percent of adults in households with $30,000 or less in income.

And many of the folks who may need access to information about health care the most may not have it; only 64 percent of adults living with at least one chronic condition have regular access to the Internet, compared with 81 percent of adults reporting no chronic conditions. Once online, though, adults with chronic conditions reported higher rates of searches for health information than those without.

The big-picture lesson for hospitals is that patients are increasingly comfortable with self-educating themselves on their care journeys, and may finally be ready to play a more active role in their care. And this convergence couldn't happen at a better time; a recent report from PriceWaterhouseCooper's Health Research Institute cautions hospitals that Stage 2 of the federal meaningful use initiative calls for greater communication with patients via electronic communication and personal health records.

And while the PwC survey found that only 14 percent of Americans currently access their medical records electronically, the upward trends in online health engagement suggest those numbers will climb dramatically in the next few years. At the very least, I look forward to fewer worried calls from my sister, who can transition from WebMD searches to constantly updating her PHR. One can only hope.