Googling your heart out: What search trends tell us about health & inequality

This article caught my eye the other day – an examination of Google search terms that occur most frequently in particular US states, comparing those in ‘easy living’ to ‘hard living’ states. ‘Easy’ or ‘hard’ related to features such as level of income, education and life expectancy, so a kind of social deprivation or health inequality measure. The analysis looked at terms which had the highest correlation with those particular areas, rather than looking at most common search terms per se.

What struck me as interesting was how often health terms came up in those ‘hard’ states – particularly around diet and control of long term conditions like diabetes and blood pressure (This is leaving aside for a moment the obvious, and somewhat perturbing if not particularly shocking, prominence of words about religion and guns.) I found it fascinating because often in digital health there is an assumption of a ‘digital divide’, with more educated or well informed patients being more likely to use technology for health information but not those people who actually might need the information the most.

Contrary to that assumption, this study suggests that people in ‘hard living’ states are in fact using the internet to look for health information. For me, this raises the question of what information they find and how they use it. A couple of the search terms relate to possibly dubious diets, so I wonder about the sources of information these people access, and the quality of the information provided. Is it our responsibility in the health sector to not only recognise how people these days find health information (on Google rather than in a leaflet from the Pharmacy) but to try to make sure there are easily accessible sources of reliable information for them to use? Or, alternatively, should we be worried about the reliance on unregulated sources, and be discouraging people from self-diagnosis and unsupported self-management, in favour of making health professionals themselves more accessible?

One last observation – technology still features hugely in the ‘easy living’ top ten as well, but in a very different way. Here, the latest high tech cameras were one of the major search correlates. There is still some evidence here then of a type of ‘digital divide’ but it is not as simple as having those who use technology vs those who don’t. Technology as luxury vs technology to meet basic needs (like health information) perhaps? Or perhaps this is just an artefact of the ‘easy living’ states probably having more disposable income to spend on expensive cameras?

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