Health-related Google searches spike weeks before visiting ER

In the weeks before visiting an emergency room, patients were often found Google searching health-related terms, symptoms and hospital logistics, according to a Penn Medicine study.

Researchers from Philadelphia-based Penn Medicine approached 300 patients at an urban emergency department between 2016 and 2017 to see if they were interested in sharing their Google search histories and health records for the study. Of the 300 patients, 49 percent were willing to share their search history and health records.

Health-related Google searches doubled in the weeks before a patient visited the ER. More than half of patients were searching for clinical information related to the reason for their visits, including symptoms or a potential illness they had. Patients searched the health-related terms multiple times before going to the ER.

Approximately 15 percent of patients searched for the location of the emergency department and other logistical information.

The results may show gaps in communication between patients and providers. In one case, a patient searched, "How big is a walnut?" and "What is a fibrous tumor?" The patient's medical records showed he or she was diagnosed with a "walnut-sized fibrous tumor."

Penn Medicine researchers published the study in BMJ Open.

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