February 22, 2019
Patients who visit the emergency department have a tendency to conduct internet searches for symptoms they are experiencing or illnesses they suspect they may have.
In the week before visiting the emergency department, Google searches doubled among a group of patients who participated in the study conducted by Penn Medicine researchers.
More than half searched for clinical information related to the reason for their visit. Another 15 percent searched for logistical information, including the location of the emergency department. And they often conducted multiple searches before heading to the ER.
Those findings were part of a study that examined the relationship between Google search histories and electronic health records among consenting patients. It is believed to be the first study to link private search data to electronic health records at an individual level.
Between 2016 and 2017, Penn Medicine researchers asked more than 300 patients to share access to their search histories and health records. Nearly half – 49 percent – agreed to participate in the study.
"Knowing what patients look for before visiting an ED can help us anticipate their needs and direct them to the best sources of care," lead author Jeremy Asch said in a statement. "And knowing what they search for afterward tells us how we can communicate better and help patients on their paths."
One patient was told by her physician that she had a walnut-size, fibrous tumor. Afterward, she searched "How big is a walnut?" and "What is a fibrous tumor?" Such searches reveal communication breakdowns that medical professionals may not realize are happening, the researchers said.
Dr. Raina Merchant, director of Penn Medicine's Center for Digital Health, said search data reveals what patients are uncomfortable asking or what they simply do not understand. By examining this information, physicians can tweak the ways they approach certain conversations.
“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 in a statement.
The study was published Wednesday in BMJ Open. It was funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneer Award.