What Do People Google Before Going to the E.R.?

Study reveals that patients’ health-related searches doubled in the week before an emergency room visit

The study's authors say search data could be used to better anticipate patients' needs and gauge issues they might feel uncomfortable discussing in person Public domain

A new analysis of more than 100 emergency room patients’ Google search histories offers an array of insights regarding contemporary health care practices. As Ed Cara reports for Gizmodo, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that in the week before an E.R. visit, participants’ googling of health-related information doubled, with queries on symptoms, possible diagnoses and logistical data related to nearby emergency departments topping the list of searches.

The findings, published in BMJ Open, highlight the potential benefits of using search data to better anticipate patients’ needs. John Kopp of PhillyVoice points out, for example, that private searches are more likely to reveal questions patients are uncomfortable asking in person, either out of embarrassment over a set of symptoms or fear of appearing uninformed.

One individual cited in the study arrived at the hospital with a “walnut-sized fibrous tumor.” Although the doctor charged with relaying this diagnosis probably offered an explanation of its medical significance, the patient’s later Google searches—“how big is a walnut” and “what is a fibrous tumor?”—revealed a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

“Knowing what patients look for before visiting an ED can help us ... direct them to the best sources of care,” lead author Jeremy Asch, an innovation strategist in the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health, says in a statement. “And knowing what they search for afterward tells us how we can communicate better and help patients on their paths.”

To recruit volunteers for the study, Asch and his colleagues asked around 700 individuals who visited the E.R. between March 2016 and 2017 whether they had a Google account. Around 300 answered in the affirmative, Gizmodo’s Cara notes, but when the scientists requested that participants provide their full Google search histories, the pool narrowed down considerably. In total, 119 people agreed to allow the team to trawl through their private internet footprint; factoring in those whose data was unobtainable or absent, the final count stood at 103.

According to the Philly Inquirer’s Aneri Pattani, the researchers looked for patterns by comparing search histories with patients’ medical records. On average, Asch tells Pattani, about six percent of all Google searches are related to health issues. But in the week before an E.R. visit, participants’ health-related search rate essentially doubled. More than half of subjects, or some 53 percent, sought out information related to their chief complaint (for example, the study notes, an individual suffering from headaches might google “how to relieve sinus pressure”), while 15 percent googled directions or logistical information related to nearby health care facilities.

Surprisingly, Asch adds, the team discovered that most individuals avoided falling into the trap of letting Google searches portend the worst-case scenarios. “Most people did search pretty accurately for what they’re complaining about and not down that rabbit hole of, ‘is it cancer or a brain tumor,’” as Asch explains to Pattani.

One of the main questions raised by the study is how exactly medical professionals could access and learn from patients’ search histories. For CNBC, Christina Farr writes that researchers hoping to study such private information must ensure patients fully understand what they’re agreeing to share, as well as provide a guarantee that data will only be used for the purpose described. A group like Google, Farr notes, might have trouble reaching such an agreement due to concerns that data would be shared with third parties including advertisers.

Perhaps the most intriguing conclusion of the research is just how willing individuals are to share their private data. Of the 300 patients with Google accounts, roughly half agreed to give the scientists access to their complete search histories.

If the health care industry can find a way to integrate search histories into medical records without exposing private information, the results could be transformative.

“Rather than sending patients to ‘Dr. Google,’” senior author Raina Merchant concludes in the statement, “we wonder whether we can provide more useful information in their appointments based on what they really care about.”

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