Turns out Facebook is more than just a tool to help keep in touch with old friends and keep everyone posted on your latest whereabouts. Increasingly people are using the social network to gather information about their health care, according to a study by National Research, a health care research firm.

National Research surveys 22,877 Americans across the country each month for its Ticker survey to come up with what it describes as one of the largest and most up-to-date surveys on consumer behavior when it comes to health care. According to its latest survey, 96% of respondents said they used Facebook to gather information about health care while 28% used YouTube and 22% used Twitter

MySpace saw a decline of 14% of people using it for health-care information from 16% in June.  The survey also found that 4 out of 10 respondents said social media was very likely or likely to impact future health-care decisions and 39% said they have a very high or high level of trust in social media. Only 6.2% claimed to have a very low level of trust in the growing social media world.

Americans continue to think highly of the usability of social media, but are tempered in crowning it the premier source of health care information when considering all options, the National Research said in a press release.

According to the firm, individuals using social media for health care information had an average age of 42 and were considered affluent; those that tended to shy away from social media were 49 years old, on average. Whats more, households that earned $75,000 or more were more likely to turn to social media for health care information than households with a smaller income.  

A quick Google search yielded multiple Facebook pages pertaining medical information and conditions. And many health organizations and agencies, hospitals and medical facilities have Facebook pages. Search pretty much any diseases on YouTube and you are bound to find a video on the topic; the same is true for with Twitter. 

Although the social networks are growing in terms of usage as a resource for medical information, National Researchs survey found that most Americans still rely on hospital websites for their main source of medical information. 

Respondents continue to back hospital websites as the premier source of online health care information with over 1 in 2 preferring heath provider websites to any source, according to the survey results. Most hospital websites have information on medical conditions or links to third -party research on medical information.

National Research also found that 13% of survey respondents like to combine research from hospital websites with information gleamed from social media sites, while 2.8% relied solely on social media sites. 

The survey also found that 11.5% of respondents use mobile devices for health care information, a number surely set to grow as the explosion of apps for smartphones continues.

While using social media to research health information can be helpful, surfers need to keep in mind that opinion and non-professional advice can be melded in with facts on social media websites. Unlike medical websites, there is no vetting process for what information is posted on social media sites.

Christine Leyden, vice president and general manager of the client services division at URAC, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that promotes health-care quality, described social network sites as a high-risk area for consumers.  URAC created a seal of approval that will tell consumers that the website is providing unbiased information and has passed an accreditation process.

Social networks provide great value for support, but  Leyden warns they shouldnt be the primary source for medical information.