Nav: Home

Health-related Google searches doubled in week before ER visits

February 20, 2019

Health-related internet searches doubled during the week before patients visited an emergency department, according to a new study from researchers at Penn Medicine who examined consenting patients' Google search histories in relation to their electronic health records (EHRs). The study, published today in BMJ Open, is believed to be the first of its kind to link private search data to EHRs at the individual level. The study also shows that patients--roughly half--are willing to share their search histories and combine them with their personal health records.

"Even though we're in the early stages of this research, we've learned a lot about the questions patients ask before making the decision to visit an emergency department (ED), as well as questions they have about their care after their visit," said lead author Jeremy Asch, an innovation strategist in the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. "Knowing what patients look for before visiting an ED can help us anticipate their needs and direct them to the best sources of care. And knowing what they search for afterward tells us how we can communicate better and help patients on their paths."

Between 2016 and 2017, the researchers approached adult patients in a large, urban emergency department to determine whether they would be interested in sharing their Google search histories and electronic health records for the study. Of more than 300 patients who reported having a Google account, almost half (49 percent) were willing to share access to their search histories and health records with researchers.

Google searches for health-related information doubled among patients in the week before an ED visit, with more than half searching for clinical information related to the reason for their visit, such as the symptoms they were experiencing or potential illnesses they believed they might have. Another 15 percent searched for the location of the emergency department or other logistical information. Patients often searched health-related terms multiple times before heading to the hospital.

The results also revealed gaps in communication that clinicians may not realize they've created. One participant in the study first searched, "How big is a walnut?" followed by "What is a fibrous tumor?" The medical records revealed that the patient had been told she had a "walnut-sized fibrous tumor."

"The physician caring for that patient might have believed effective communication took place," said Asch. "But if the patient then had to look up the two key terms--'walnut' and 'fibrous tumor'--it's clear that the patient communication wasn't effective enough."

Senior author Raina Merchant, MD, director of the Center for Digital Health and an associate professor of Emergency Medicine, pointed out that this type of data can "reveal what patients are uncomfortable asking about," along with what they might not understand. Through this, physicians can adjust how they present information or approach certain topics.

"Rather than sending patients to 'Dr. Google,' we wonder whether we can provide more useful information in their appointments based on what they really care about," Merchant said.

Other studies examining social media have turned up promising results, such as one by Merchant and her colleagues showing that terms in Facebook posts can predict the diagnosis of depression three months before doctors put it in the medical record. But search histories are hidden and may reveal what people are truly wondering or might be too embarrassed to bring up. In this way, the search histories examined in this study are potentially more revealing than Tweets or Facebook posts.

"When you read Facebook posts, you are listening to what people want to tell you, but when you read search histories, you learn what people want to know," said Merchant. "In the end, really understanding what people want to know may be the most beneficial for impacting care."

Asch said that the rate of people who consented to have the researchers analyze their search histories was actually consistent with previous studies examining social media posts.

"When the study began, we wanted to understand more about patients' willingness to share online search data," Asch said. "As it turns out, people are fairly willing to share this information for health research. And with the right privacy and use protections, it's a great thing. People use digital resources constantly, and we want to know what the data says about us and how it can help."
-end-
This study was funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneer Award (72695). Other Penn co-authors include David A. Asch, Elissa Klinger, Justine Marks and Norah Sadek.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $7.8 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided more than $500 million to benefit our community.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Related Emergency Department Articles:

Emoji buttons gauge emergency department sentiments in real time
Simple button terminals stationed around emergency departments featuring 'emoji' reflecting a range of emotions are effective in monitoring doctor and patient sentiments in real time.
Emergency department openings and closures impact resources for heart attack patients
A new study has found that hospital emergency room closures can adversely affect health outcomes for heart attack patients at neighboring hospitals that are near or at full capacity.
Is caregiver depression associated with more emergency department visits by patients with dementia?
An observational study of 663 caregivers and the patients with dementia they care for suggests caregiver depression is associated with increased emergency department visits for their patients.
Physical and mental illnesses combined increase emergency department visits
People with both physical illnesses and mental disorders visit the emergency department more frequently than people with multiple physical illnesses or mental illness alone, according to a study in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).
Reducing overtesting in the emergency department could save millions
A new study finds there's excessive imaging testing being performed in the emergency department.
More Emergency Department News and Emergency Department Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...