Google it: What search trends tell us about breast density knowledge

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Google Trends, a feature of the search engine that allows users to track the frequency of searches, can offer insights into the general public’s information-seeking behavior on the topic of dense breasts, according to a study published online this month in Academic Radiology.

Web search analysis has been used for health policy in the past, generally as a means of tracking the spread of infection diseases. Soudabeh Fazeli Dehkordy, MD, MPH, of the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor, and colleagues, aimed to see if a similar analysis of Google Trends could help evaluate interest in the hot button topic of dense breast screening.

Dense breast tissue can make cancers harder to spot on mammography, leading some states to implement a requirement that women with dense breasts are notified when they receive their mammography results. A total of 19 states have passed breast density notification legislation since Connecticut passed the first such law in 2009.

Dehkordy and colleagues used Google Trends to track the search query “dense breast,” and then compared the results to the dates of related legislative action.

Results showed that the 10 states with the highest search volumes all had passed breast density notification laws or were considering them at the time of the analysis with the exception of Florida, which had seen its bill die in the state legislature. “Our data suggest that any legislative action and respective news coverage appear to be correlated with an increase in information seeking for ‘dense breast’ on Google,” wrote the authors.

Most searches were concentrated on the east and west coasts where most of the legislative action was occurring, according to Dehkordy and colleagues.

The authors did note some limitations with the study in that Google is continually optimizing algorithms which may lead to variation in search results. Google Trends also does not provide absolute numbers of searches.

Even with the limitations, the authors suggested that this type of Google Trend analysis could be a useful tool for public health surveillance. “[U]nderstanding the information-seeking behavior can inform health organizations, advocacy groups and health professionals regarding women's health information needs and the appropriate focus, content and approach to education and counseling, especially in Web-based venues,” they wrote.