Aggregating the symptoms into themes, the researchers found that several broad categories of health concerns stuck out: Queries about headaches were 41 percent higher than expected; for hernia, 37 percent; for chest pain, 35 percent; and for arrhythmia, 32 percent. Back pain, gastric pain, joint pain, and toothache also popped up with greater-than-expected frequency among the search terms.
"The Great Recession undoubtedly got inside the body via the mind, namely through stress," Ayers said. "For example, the experiences of the unemployed may be stressful, but also those not directly affected by unemployment may become fearful of losing their jobs."
Benjamin Althouse, an epidemiologist and Omidyar Fellow with the Santa Fe Institute and one of the study's coauthors, said that by monitoring health-related search terms, public health officials could recognize burgeoning epidemics such as stress-related chest pain and direct resources to help people reduce their stress or take other precautionary measures. This technique is quicker, cheaper, and more efficient than traditional survey methodology, he added.
"The status quo approaches to public health surveillance are both contrived and expensive," Althouse said. "Internet search queries may be a significantly more precise metric, suggesting precisely when and how the population's health is changing."
Ayers added that search engines like Google could even interpret these searches and suggest links to Internet-based treatment options.
"The web is a stigma-reducing and cost-reducing venue to reach patients who search for, but do not otherwise receive, treatment because they cannot afford medications or copayments," Aye
|Contact: Beth Chee|
San Diego State University