Online search patterns may hold key to rightsize cancer-screening participation

Public interest in cancer screening soars and dips on the changing air of all sorts of variables, from press coverage of clinical trials to releases of new guidelines to the words and actions of popular entertainers and other public figures.

One need look no further than Google—or, more specifically Google Trends, the web-based tool for identifying the frequency of online searches—to observe the phenomenon as it unfolds over time and within geographic areas.

That’s just what researchers Andrew Rosenkrantz, MD, and Vinay Prabhu, MD, both of the New York University School of Medicine, did as they analyzed search patterns spanning the years from 2004 to 2014.

Their study report is running in the January edition of the American Journal of Roentgenology.

Qualitatively evaluating the Google Trends numbers reflecting the relative frequency of searches for imaging-based cancer screening tests in the U.S., Rosenkrantz and Prabhu found that, for example, overall searches for “mammography” decreased slightly over the 10-year period.

However, they peaked in October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—in most years and shot skyward in November 2009, when the updated U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released its screening mammography guidelines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the press attention, the frequency of searches for “tomosynthesis” skyrocketed from 2009 through 2014.

Among the researchers’ other notable findings:

  • The frequency of searches for “lung cancer screening” decreased slightly from 2006 through 2010, increased rapidly from 2011 through 2014, and exhibited a spike in November 2010 (when the results of the National Lung Screening Trial were released).
  • Searches for “virtual colonoscopy” dropped off from 2004 through 2010, stabilized from 2011 through 2014—and spiked in months coinciding with the publication of the results of large relevant clinical trials and when President Obama had his CT colonography in 2010.
  • The frequency of searches for “prostate MRI” was stable from 2006 through 2010 and increased rapidly from 2011 through 2014.
  • Searches for “prostate MRI biopsy” increased rapidly in 2013 and 2014.

As for geographic dispersal, the more densely populated the area, the more online searches it tended to produce.

For example, searches for “lung cancer screening,” “prostate MRI” and “tomosynthesis” were higher in New York City than in any other single area.  

In their study discussion, Rosenkrantz and Prabhu note that the associations they chronicled point to the importance of both medical and popular media as mechanisms for influencing public behavior.

With that observation as a given, coverage of the outcomes of major clinical trials and other investigations by the popular media “is valuable for encouraging positive health behaviors in response to such results,” they write, “particularly in view of the paywalls and restricted access commonly maintained by biomedical journals at the present time.”

“[T]he clustering of searches for certain advanced tests in large cities raises concerns regarding the national penetration of new healthcare technologies and potential restricted access to such technologies outside the particular practice settings in which they are initially introduced,” the authors add. “Google Trends and other similar digital tools may provide an approach for rapidly monitoring the effect of any initiatives to address such imbalances.”