Healthcare News & Insights

Why patients’ Google search data could positively impact health care

The future of predictive medicine may not just rest on electronic health record (EHR) data or genetic testing. There may also be some value for hospitals and clinicians in analyzing personal search engine data to improve patients’ health care. 

Search histories from Google and other popular search engines could offer valuable insight into what patients need, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania published in BMJ.

As part of the study, patients who visited the emergency department were asked to share their search data with researchers for analysis over a one-year period. Per a news release, just under half of the patients approached agreed to do so.

Before they seek medical attention, patients often turn to the internet to find a solution for their issue. In fact, according to the study, patients’ searches for medical-related info doubled in the week before they visited the ED. And most of their searches were related to the reason they visited the hospitals (e.g., looking for info on specific symptoms or illnesses).

Often, the same patient would look for the same info about their health multiple times before going to the hospital for treatment. And before they arrived at the hospital, about 15% of participants searched for details about the location of the ED or other general info about visiting the hospital.

Practical uses for search data

After they’ve been treated at the hospital, patients’ Google search history could possibly be used as a tool for clinicians to understand whether they fully and clearly communicated essential health info to patients.

Example: One patient who’d left the hospital asked Google “how big is a walnut?” and “what is a fibrous tumor?” When researchers examined her records in the hospital’s EHR, they discovered that a doctor told her she had a fibrous tumor the size of a walnut. So it was likely she was searching for additional info about her diagnosis because she didn’t understand the clinician’s initial explanation.

Reviewing searches like these can help hospitals understand how communication gaps can lead to patient misunderstandings and work with clinical staff to nip the problem in the bud. It could be as simple as telling providers to use more conversational terms or encouraging them to let patients ask questions. Facilities can also give providers better tools to assess a patient’s health literacy up front.

Along with insight into communication issues, data from patient searches can also be used to improve the patient experience in the ED and other departments. If many patients are searching for directions to the facility or parking info before visiting, hospitals can tweak their websites to make that info more prominent and easier to find.

In addition, by getting a general idea of the kind of health info patients are searching for before they visit the hospital, facilities can be better equipped with how to handle their concerns, whether it’s by investing in a certain piece of equipment to run more comprehensive tests or by tweaking scheduling so there are enough staff available to evaluate patients’ health right away.

While predictive medicine is still in its infancy, analyzing search engine data, comparing it with what’s in the EHR and using it to come up with proactive ideas to change processes could go a long way toward improving quality of care and patient treatment. We’ll continue to keep you posted on any developments.

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