When Canadians get connected, they’re looking for health information, according to an international comparison of Internet use.

The Conference Board of Canada Thursday released its third annual Connectedness Index,

which pits Canada against nine other nations who belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as Australia, Finland and Sweden. The ranking looks at indicators that measure the use of information and communications technologies (ICT). According to the Conference Board, Canada comes second only to the United States in terms of overall connectedness.

Brian Guthrie, the organization’s director of Innovation and Knowledge Management, said health care, education and government information were among the key sectors that drew Canadians online.

“”It’s becoming clear that general health information is the fourth-highest use of the Internet,”” he said, adding that in some ways the trend represented a double-edged sword. “”It’s got the health-care people a little bit concerned. I mean, there’s huge liability issues for the professionals,”” but there are savings to be had by disseminating information online rather than paying for postage.

The Conference Board defines connectedness as: “”The availability and use of ICT and associated services to facilitate communications, interactions and transactions whenever and wherever.”” Though that often means the Internet, Guthrie said the scope has expanded over time. “”We’ve got into some aspects of television, the telephone and an in anticipation of future technologies like set-top boxes,”” he said.

Size alone does not account for Canada’s ranking behind the U.S., Guthrie said. All of the indicators are normalized for population. “”We’re actually ahead of the U.S. in reach and use, which means basically once we have technology we’re using it more,”” he said. “”But Americans have more technology available in the first place and the pricing is a bit more competitive.””

The Conference Board’s index comes less than two months after a study from Statistics Canada that painted a far darker picture of Internet use across the country. According to the Household Internet Use Survey, 232,000 Canadian households report that they no longer use the Internet regularly. The most common reason (30 per cent) was they had “”no need”” for the Internet.

Gurthie said it was unfair to compare the two studies because StatsCan looked at purely domestic data — “”It’s not apples to apples,”” he said — but he admitted some users may be reaching a plateau. The amount of spam in household e-mail accounts, he said, may be one of the reasons.

“”I think on what I would call the interpersonal communications, people are starting to tune out a little bit,”” he said. “”In terms of basic business — for transacting with customers, for e-procurement — it’s on the increase.””

The index recommends that Canada work as a country to improve its use of broadband, content and wireless technologies to stay competitive. “”The issue with broadband is partially hardware and software, but it’s also content,”” he said. “”There’s no question if you look at health and education the content is a huge nut to crack. There’s lots of content out there but the professionals who really know the content don’t necessarily have the time, the resources or the inclination to go online with their expertise.””

The complete Connectedness Index is scheduled to be posted on the Conference Board’s site on Friday.

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