The BMJ Open Journal published an observational study on the searches carried out on Google by patients presenting to an emergency department.
Digital media capture and document an increasing segment of people’s lives through the sites they visit and the contributions they make to social media. Many of these digital traces reflect health. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts can reveal health-related behaviours, symptoms or diagnoses.
But while there is no lack of examples of aggregate use of research data to understand health phenomena, such as Google Flu Trends, launched in 2008, which aimed to link influenza epidemics to influenza-related symptom research, it is much more difficult to study individual-level associations, since research histories and personal health conditions are private and require individual-level consent for observation.
To study this phenomenon Jeremy M Asch, David A Asch, Elissa V Klinger, Justine Marks, Norah Sadek and Raina M Merchant, carried out an observational study to answer three questions about patients presenting to an emergency department:
- will patients share their research data so that they can be analyzed in association with their electronic medical records?
- Is there a variation in health-related researches that leads to visit the emergency department?
- What are patients looking for?
Many of the participants’ searches were health related, suggesting an opportunity to better understand patients’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours about health about the health information they were searching for. These searches also reveal gaps in traditional health communication. One participant searched ‘how big is a walnut’, followed by ‘what is a fibrous tumour?’
Health-related searches doubled prior to an ED visit, suggesting an opportunity to better understand patients’ concerns before seeking care in an acute care setting. More specifically, in the week before visiting the ED, 15% of participants searched for location or logistical information and 53% searched for clinical information relevant to their visit. Participants often searched for health-related topics multiple times prior to making the decision to visit the hospital. These findings suggest an ability to anticipate demand even for patients visiting the ED.
In retail contexts, search terms currently direct targeted advertisements, taking advantage of anticipated demand. One can imagine predicting the demand of hospital services in the same way advertisers predict sales. Search terms predictive enough of serious illness to suggest emergency care or predictive enough of benign illness to suggest avoiding such care. By knowing what patients search for prior to a hospitalisation, we can gain a better understanding of how to respond to what matters most to patients.
Although the stakes and costs of false positive and false negative errors would be considerably higher than with misdirected advertising, Google already provides in the United States information about suicide prevention services when search terms suggesting that suicidal intent is entered.