It makes perfect sense that individuals with vague physical symptoms like abdominal pain might turn to the web to see if they can connect their symptoms to a specific disease. A study was conducted focusing on individuals who developed pancreatic cancer. The researchers worked backwards and looked at their prior web searches about the possible meaning of their early symptoms (see: Microsoft Finds Cancer Clues in Search Queries). Below is an excerpt from the article:
Microsoft scientists have demonstrated that by analyzing large samples of search engine queries they may in some cases be able to identify internet users who are suffering from pancreatic cancer, even before they have received a diagnosis of the disease. The scientists said they hoped their work could lead to early detection of cancer....The researchers focused on searches conducted on Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, that indicated someone had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. From there, they worked backward, looking for earlier queries that could have shown that the Bing user was experiencing symptoms before the diagnosis. Those early searches, they believe, can be warning flags.While five-year survival rates for pancreatic cancer are extremely low, early detection of the disease can prolong life in a very small percentage of cases. The study suggests that early screening can increase the five-year survival rate of pancreatic patients to 5 to 7 percent, from just 3 percent.The researchers reported that they could identify from 5 to 15 percent of pancreatic cases with false positive rates of as low as one in 100,000....The data used by the researchers was anonymized, meaning it did not carry identifying markers like a user name, so the individuals conducting the searches could not be contacted.A logical next step would be to figure out what to do with that search information. One possibility would be some sort of health service where users could allow their searches to be collected, allowing scientists to monitor for questions that indicate warning flag symptoms.
Some healthcare consumers, when faced with vague symptoms, may turn to the web to help them determine whether they have a specific disease. The authors of the study suggest that a periodic analysis of an individual's web searches might result in the earlier diagnosis of serious diseases. The most interesting question about all of this is exactly how this approach could be used to improve the health status of a broad swath of consumers. The only answer that I could come up with would be for such individuals to agree to allow a health app to review their web searches periodically to determine whether the searches indicated the pattern of a future disease. Obviously, such an agreement would need to be governed by the strictest confidentiality agreements. Even then, there would be the possibility of mischief if unknown parties got hold of some of this information. Still, an intriguing idea.