According to new research, search engine queries related to common heart disease symptoms track closely with geographic and seasonal trends for coronary heart disease hospitalizations. The previous study has used internet search data to gain insights into the spread of infectious disease. This new study is among the first to focus on searches relevant to heart disease, including terms that may signal symptoms of a heart attack.
"On an individual level, this study shows that people are not just searching for routine symptoms but symptoms that can be life-threatening," said Conor Senecal, MD, resident physician at Mayo Clinic and the study's lead author. "It suggests that what's presented to them online can have real-world impacts on their health."
To track search queries, researchers analyzed how frequently people in the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia used Google to search for chest pain, chest discomfort, chest pressure between 2012 and 2017. State-by-state Medicare beneficiary data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was used to track coronary heart disease hospitalizations.
The study focused on two questions. The first was whether the geographic distribution of relevant search queries reflected the geographic distribution of heart disease hospitalizations. On that question, researchers found a strong correlation between the search queries and hospitalizations on a state-by-state basis.
In general, this indicates that people living in states with higher rates of heart disease hospitalizations search for symptoms more frequently, researchers said. The second question focused on whether the timing of relevant search queries reflected the seasonal trends in heart disease hospitalizations.
Past research has shown that coronary heart disease hospitalizations peak in the winter months and drop in the summer. In this study, researchers found relevant search queries tracked relatively well with seasonal trends, with significant spikes in the winter and dips in the summer in the U.S. and U.K.
According to researchers, the results show that the use of the internet to investigate heart symptoms is widespread across many regions and suggest that search trends can be a useful resource for tracking heart disease over time and in different regions.
Author concludes that search data is an imperfect tool, but it may be able to provide some hints into issues that could be further researched with more rigorous methods.
"It's crucial moving forward that large search providers and public health officials work together to provide accurate information for these conditions through internet-based search," Senecal said. "Patients should seek out reputable resources and, if they have any concerns, contact a physician."