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Open Access Publications from the University of California

What Did You Google? Describing Online Health Information Search Patterns of ED patients and Their Relationship with Final Diagnoses

  • Author(s): McCarthy, Danielle M.
  • Scott, Grant N.
  • Courtney, D. Mark
  • Czerniak, Alyssa
  • Aldeen, Amer Z.
  • Gravenor, Stephanie
  • Dresden, Scott M.
  • et al.

Introduction: Emergency department (ED) patients’ Internet search terms prior to arrival have notbeen well characterized. The objective of this analysis was to characterize the Internet search termspatients used prior to ED arrival and their relationship to final diagnoses.

Methods: We collected data via survey; participants listed Internet search terms used. Terms wereclassified into categories: symptom, specific diagnosis, treatment options, anatomy questions,processes of care/physicians, or “other.” We categorized each discharge diagnosis as either symptombasedor formal diagnosis. The relationship between the search term and final diagnosis was assignedto one of four categories of search/diagnosis combinations (symptom search/symptom diagnosis,symptom search/formal diagnosis, diagnosis search/symptom diagnosis, diagnosis search/formaldiagnosis), representing different “trajectories.”

Results: We approached 889 patients; 723 (81.3%) participated. Of these, 177 (24.5%) used theInternet prior to ED presentation; however, seven had incomplete data (N=170). Mean age was 47years (standard deviation 18.2); 58.6% were female and 65.7% white. We found that 61.7% searchedsymptoms and 40.6% searched a specific diagnosis. Most patients received discharge diagnoses ofequal specificity as their search terms (34% flat trajectory-symptoms and 34% flat trajectory-diagnosis).Ten percent searched for a diagnosis by name but received a symptom-based discharge diagnosiswith less specificity. In contrast, 22% searched for a symptom and received a detailed diagnosis.Among those who searched for a diagnosis by name (n=69) only 29% received the diagnosis that theyhad searched.

Conclusion: The majority of patients used symptoms as the basis of their pre-ED presentation Internetsearch. When patients did search for specific diagnoses, only a minority searched for the diagnosisthey eventually received. [West J Emerg Med. 2017;18(5)928-936.]

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