It should be no surprise that, for many patients, the number of healthcare searches increases before they visit the ER.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examines what people searched for before visiting the ER, and delivers some unique insights on patient behavior. This report, published in BMJ Open, claims to be the first of its kind to link search histories and electronic medical records (EMRs) at the individual level.
The researchers found that over half of the patients who went to the ER and were willing to share their Google history searched proportionately more for health information in the week before their visit. These results reveal how much people rely on Google for health information and the logistics of seeking care. By understanding these search behavior patterns, healthcare providers can gain a deeper understanding of patients’ needs, as well as invest in the right digital marketing tools to reach those pursuing treatment.
What Are Patients Searching For?
From March 2016 to 2017, the study’s authors asked over 700 patients visiting the ER if they had a Google account. 334 said they did, and 165 were willing to share their search histories and EMRs with researchers. Of these 165 patients, 103 officially qualified for the study. They arrived at the ER with a variety of complaints, the most common of which were gastrointestinal (37%), obstetrics and gynaecological (17%), and neurological (14%).
In total, the 103 participants had conducted nearly 600,000 unique search queries, 6% of which were health-related. In the seven days preceding their ER visit, however, the number of health-related searches rose to 15%. In fact, 63% of patients searched proportionately more for healthcare topics during this time.
During the week before their ER visit, many patients searched for symptoms (56%) or information about visiting the hospital (53%). Others (23%) asked Google for help treating or managing a disease. 53% of patients searched for information related to the chief complaint they reported at the ER — many attempting to understand their symptoms or figure out which disease they might have. Finally, 13% used Google to get directions to the ER or other healthcare facilities.
What Do These Results Mean for Providers?
The reported increase in health-related searches prior to visiting the ER indicates the extent to which patients rely on Google for everything from symptoms to treatment to how to find the nearest hospital. For providers, these online searches can provide insight into patients’ knowledge and behavior, and even predict future healthcare demand.
“Even though we're in the early stages of this research, we've learned a lot about the questions patients ask before making the decision to visit an emergency department (ED), as well as questions they have about their care after their visit,” said the study’s lead author Jeremy Asch, in a statement. "Knowing what patients look for before visiting an ED can help us anticipate their needs and direct them to the best sources of care."
From a marketing and recruitment perspective, Google searches offer healthcare providers the opportunity to connect with new patients. Realizing that people tend to rely on the internet before pursuing treatment can help medical marketers target patients through SEO best practices and strategic Google Ads.
For example, a medical practice could use keyword research to write a blog post explaining common symptoms of a herniated disc, and then include a clear call-to-action (CTA) encouraging the reader to make an appointment for an accurate diagnosis. Or, Google Ads could help attract patients who are already searching for a healthcare provider in their area.
Understanding patients’ needs could have an enormous impact on healthcare. It’s clear that examining patients’ intentions — and what healthcare searches they conduct from the privacy of their own computers or devices — can help providers both attract new patients and provide those they treat with the highest-quality care.