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Can Google Trends Track Cancer Rates?

A recent study investigates whether google trends and search queries can be used to track disease and guide future prevention and support programs.

Internet search engines, like Google, are great tools that provide quick and easy access to health-related information, regarding disease symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Cancer-related queries are some of the most common health-related internet searches. Previous studies have shown that approximately 39 to 60% of cancer patients used the internet to obtain relevant information pertaining to their cancer. Considering the high incidence rates of cancer in Queensland, Australia, and all over the world, researchers question whether Google Trends, a large repository of search queries, can be used as a potential tool for tracking disease trends and guiding future prevention and support programs.

A recent study, published in BMC Cancer, by Huang and colleagues investigated the association between age-standardized incidence rates for common cancers and measures of internet cancer-search queries reported by Google Trends. The authors obtained record data of all people diagnosed with breast cancer, colorectal cancer, melanoma, and prostate cancer in Queensland, Australia, between January 2006 and December 2012. Google Trends provided search volume indexes (SVIs) for relevant search terms, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, bowel cancer, colon cancer, melanoma, skin cancer, and prostate cancer. The search volume indexes provide a measure of how often the terms were searched in each month.

The authors found a significant association between increases in the monthly incidence rates of the four cancers and the corresponding increases in the monthly searches, except for colorectal cancer. The monthly age-standardized incidence rates for colorectal cancer was, however, associated with monthly searches for bowel cancer and colon cancer. This is likely because bowel cancer is a more commonly used term than colorectal cancer.

Unfortunately, there was a large variation in the predictive power of the searchers in explaining corresponding incidence rates. The inclusion of more search terms and lagged searches improved the predictive power slightly, but further development and refinement of the approach are necessary. Despite this, studying Google search queries may optimize resource deployment, cancer prevention, and cancer awareness strategies.

Written by Haisam Shah, BSc

Reference: Huang, X., Baade, P., Youlden, D. R., Youl, P. H., Hu, W., & Kimlin, M. G. (2017). Google as a cancer control tool in Queensland. BMC Cancer17(1), 816.

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