Can Google predict when you want to see your Doctor?

Zesty-A5-Flyer_FinalCan Google help us to understand what patients are in need of when they search online for health information? Apparently! We already know that 66% of American web users search online for information about specific diseases or medical problems, and 56% look for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure. But until now we had no clear idea when people search.

A new study in the US analyzed weekly patterns in health-related Google search queries. Investigators analyzed the term “healthy” in Google searches between 2005 and 2012 in the US, and found that the search for health topics peak (with 30% to be more likely) at the beginning of the week than on days later in the week. They saw modest increases again during the weekends. This pattern is consistent. Investigator John W. Ayers clarifies that many illnesses have a weekly clock, with spikes early in the week. Joanna Cohen, another investigator with the study, says that they were able to see this effect because of the perception that Monday is a fresh start, akin to a mini New Year’s Day. People tend to indulge in less healthy behaviors on the weekend, so Monday can serve as a ‘health reset’ to get back on track with their health regimens.

Can this help to improve health service provision? The digital health innovation company Zesty.co.uk in Britain thinks so. They found a similar picture of the search pattern from their statistics for London patient bookings and citizen’s searches. The company is scaling an online health appointment-booking model to make it easier for practices to help patients to access, book and rate & review health services online. As Lloyd Price, co-founder of Zesty puts it: “Zesty is in the right spot to help the health ecosystem and individual practices benefit from these results, and turn our insight into real value, for both patients and the UK healthcare system”.

According to the investigators of the San Diego Google health search study, understanding the circaseptan rhythms around health behaviors can yield critical public health gains. The US govt. spends $76.2 billion annually on health promotion programs. Concentrating on weekday(s), when more people are contemplating health habits, can improve cost-effectiveness and efficiency of these public intervention programs.

Providers, public health organizations, and Health 2.0 innovators can use this insight to produce solutions that are built around the needs of patients instead on assumptions by health systems. When reviewing their internal statistics, Zesty found that there indeed is a reoccurring pattern when people search for health care appointments and take action (e.g. book online). Tools such as Zesty.co.uk can help practices find their individual peak times, and help them succeed- both in providing better care for patients and running a successful and growing practice. “If practices have an insight of when people book, they can also plan their resources more effectively, like changing staff-rotations and planning to invest in an additional practitioner”, remarks Price.

Prompting patients to take action after searching online for treatments and symptoms is important to help them to take the right initiative before it is too late. One example is NHS Choices, which gets over a million users searching on the site per day. Managing Director Jonathon Carr-Brown said in an interview that NHS Choices will increasingly be doing more to personalize the site and move into a world where people can research and then act (e.g. make an appointment with a clinician from the site).

Health relates search queries are increasingly becoming more popular. Healthcarecommunication.com writes that health information is the single most searched topic on the web, and that people would spend more time searching about health topics than they do on e-commerce, Facebook, or YouTube. Furthermore, four out of ten consumers use social media to find reviews of doctors and treatments, and one in three post about their health care experiences using social networking tools.

Several new statistics mention a change in how people buy new health services. In a recent report by PWC Health research, patients were asked about their preferred way to shop for health and medical. 43% preferred to use an online healthcare shopping website. There is also an increase in “online health shopping trips” searches. One of the core possible reasons could be that people are increasingly demanding similar online experience and convenience for health care they find in other verticals like hospitality and shopping. This should alert innovators.

While there are success stories like HealthTap in the US, claiming to have saved more than 13,000 lives with its astonishing 1.3 billion health related questions answered by health care professionals, the full potential for online health services has yet to be discovered in other nations like the UK. Launched in London last May, Zesty is keen to bring this change in the British health ecosystem.

Ben Heubl is the Community Director at Zesty.co.uk, and a freelance journalist in digital health innovation.

 

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