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Your Google searches can be used to predict when you're about to go to the emergency room, researchers find

Key Points
  • A new study from Penn Medicine, which involved analyzing both medical record data and Google search histories of more than 100 patients, found that searches related to health increases a lot in the week before a patient goes to the emergency room. 
  • This could help the hospital better predict who might get sick.
  • The researchers also noted that doctors weren't always communicating with their patients in a way they understood, so they turned to Google.
Ariel Skelley | DigitalVision | Getty Images

There's a lot you can learn about a person by monitoring their Google searches, especially when it comes to their health.

That's according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open from researchers at Penn Medicine, which found that in the week before an emergency room visit, patients conduct nearly three times as many health-related searches, or 16 percent of their total. Google has previously disclosed that about 1 in 20 searches, or 5 percent, are for health information.

Penn Medicine was able to access this data by asking about 300 patients with a Google account to share their search histories and health records with researchers. About half of the people who were approached to participate in the study between 2016 and 2017 consented, and 103 of them met the criteria. Each of the participants presented tens of thousands of searches to the researchers around the medical event.

The research is still early, but the team behind it sees a lot of potential in using data like this to figure out who's likely to get sick, so hospitals can better prepare for them.

"This might help us anticipate the demand of patients entering the hospital," said Penn Medicine's Jeremy Asch, one of the researchers involved with the study. Asch said that about 15 percent of people searched for the nearest emergency department or the hours and location, and people often searched for health-related terms on several occasions before going to the hospital.

The researchers also noticed some communication gaps by comparing the Google searches to the notes in the patient's medical record.

For instance, one patient who searched, "how big is a walnut?" and "what is a fibrous tumor?" The researchers said that the patient had been informed by a doctor that she had a fibrous tumor the size of a walnut. She apparently didn't understand her condition, and she had to turn to Google to look it up.

The researchers said studies like these involve extremely sensitive and private information, so it's important that patients fully understand what they're consenting to. For that reason, a company like Google might not have success with this kind of study, as it requires patients to trust that the information won't be accessed by third parties, including advertisers.

So far, Google has focused instead on population health trends rather than in analyzing the behavior of individuals. For instance, it has a partnership with hospitals such as Stanford and University of California San Francisco to aggregate millions of patient records and figure out who's likely to get sick.

"When we do this kind of work, we make sure that we do it in a patient-centered way" said Raina Merchant, who's involved with the research and is an associate professor of Emergency Medicine. "We really took into account that this was very personal and private, so we had to communicate this clearly with patients."

Merchant was also involved in another study of social media data, which found that the content people share on Facebook can predict a future occurrence of depression.

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