Search for a Cure: The Medical Problems that Worry Americans Most

Image from: Sven Hoppe/Shutterstock

Some might call me a hypochondriac.  Check my medical history, and you’ll see that I have never had a life-threatening medical problem.  Check my Google history, and you’ll see that I’ve thought I’ve been sick, at some point in my life or another, with about half a dozen of them.  I would guess that I’ve Googled “which side of the stomach is the appendix on” for about 1 in 3 stomach aches I’ve had over the last 10 years.

Worriers of my particular variety can’t wait until morning to call their doctors’ offices about their symptoms, so they turn to Dr. Google and Nurse Bing, late at night, for their answers.

What sorts of problems do they think they have?  Compete’s search dataset is a good place to find out.

I pulled all of Compete’s August 2011 search data that had the word symptoms (or any reasonable misspelling thereof) included in the query.  I then labeled the data based on the other words included, sorted, and arrived at this list of the top twenty problems searched for by the most American symptoms-checkers that month:

Granted, there are a couple of issues with my methodology for capturing search data relevant to my question.  First, not everyone who searches for the word “symptoms” and one of the above diseases in the same search thinks she herself has that disease.  The searcher could be looking for information for a loved one, or studying for a med-school exam, or double-checking the facts on an episode of House.  Also, only the people who used the word “symptoms” in their search were included in my sample.  A search for “how to know if you have an std” would not have been included, for example, even though it’s relevant.  Despite these two issues, I still contend that the above list is a good reflection of the types of medical problems (or blessings, if you include wanted pregnancy) we, internet-browsing Americans, are interested in.

Seven of the twenty problems in the above chart (pregnancy, HIV, STDs, Herpes, Chlamydia, UTIs, and bladder infections) are related to sexual health.  Perhaps so many people search for sexual health problems online because asking Google for an answer outweighs the relatively embarrassing and uncomfortable go-to-your-doctor-and-get-tested route to diagnosis.  I wonder how many of the people who search for these problems end up getting tested.

Next, I wanted to know, of the problems in the list above, which cause the most worry in the people that have them?  Are people more anxious about UTIs or Chlamydia?  Withdrawal or thyroid problems?  I figured that the average number of searches that a single person does on a problem is a good proxy for how much anxiety that person has surrounding the problem.  Hence, for problems for which at least 30 people in our panel searched in August, I ranked the average number of searches per user.  Here are the top ten:

So what?  Do we Americans worry too much?  Not enough?  Are we hyper-vigilant about our health, or blasé?  Unfortunately, a thorough answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blog, but consider this:  about 56,300 people were infected with HIV in the United States in 2006, or about 4,692 people per month. [1] Yet, using the methodology described above, I estimate that approximately 21,000 Internet-users searched for HIV symptoms in August 2011.  Since it is unlikely that incidence rates increased five-fold in five years, it is fair to say many that more people worry that they have HIV than actually contract it.

Do you think that the Internet improves healthcare by making information more readily available, or would you say that Americans are putting themselves at risk by looking to the Internet for help instead of going to the doctor?  And what about you, personally?  If you conduct Internet searches for medical problems, what are you really looking for, and which websites do you trust for answers?  I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section.

About Jody Schechter:
As an Analyst for Compete, Jody manipulates data to address the information needs of our Online Media and Search clients. Outside of work, her interests include arts and crafts, developmental economics, Scrabble, and dance. Jody has a Bachelor of Science in Economics, with minors in Mathematics and International Studies, from the University of Michigan.