How many times have you done an online search for medical information you were too embarrassed to ask your doctor?
New research suggests that this search data can give us unique insight into how people think about illness, what they really want to know, and how we might use that data to develop more relevant public health interventions.
Fear and stigma surrounding disease limit people’s ability to seek and receive appropriate medical advice and care. It leads to secrecy and denial, which can increase the likelihood of further spreading infection. Effective medical care depends on openness, honesty, acceptance, a lack of judgment, and good information. However, public health interventions are not one size fits all; they must take into account the cultural context of the people in need of care.
It’s easy to assume that – whether it’s information, treatment, or cure – a health care worker can simply go into a country, town, or home and educate or treat people. Many have tried and failed, spending millions along the way by failing to take into account issues like culture, religion, gender, and economic status, and failing to establish understanding and trust with potential patients.
Successful public health interventions require, at minimum, knowledge of how patients understand disease and the kinds of questions they need answered before participating in treatment. This important anthropological work is not only expensive and time-consuming, but still depends on the complete honesty of the subjects. If that doesn’t sound like a monumental challenge, consider how often you’ve withheld information from your physician or failed to ask a question you really wanted the answer to.
Using search data in public health
Researchers from Cornell University, SUNY Stonybrook, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Microsoft Research have just published a study that may give public health organizations new tools to improve their education campaigns and programming efforts.
With the understanding that Internet searches provide a wealth of information about people’s genuine concerns about disease and the kinds of treatments they seek, Cornell computer science researcher Rediet Abebe and her team set out to discover what we can learn about public health on the African continent from people’s online searches and whether we can use this information to understand what people really want to know about disease and are afraid to ask.
Abebe began this research and did much of the technical analysis during an internship at Microsoft Research. Using proprietary data provided by Microsoft’s search engine Bing, the project turned into what she called “the first work to use large Web- or social media-based data to study health in all 54 nations in Africa.” (While Bing is more popular in Africa than it is in the U.S., Google is still the most popular search engine – however, the data gathered was enough to run the statistical analysis needed for their preliminary research.)
The research team set out to see what search data could tell them about the information needs, concerns, and misconceptions of people throughout Africa when it came to HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. These three diseases account for 22% of the disease burden in sub-Saharan Africa.
In their new paper “Using Search Queries to Understand Health Information Needs in Africa,” freely accessible here, the team collected common search themes and topics from Bing search data. They cataloged how people searched for disease symptoms, drugs, and concerns about breastfeeding, but also information that might have been difficult to glean from surveys, such as ideas about stigma and curiosity about natural cures.
Abebe told me in an interview that this project wasn’t simply confined to the computer science lab………Read More>>