If you haven’t already guessed it by now, I’m a sucker for a good research study. I believe strongly that we need a more robust evidence-base around why and how people use social media for health-related information.
The latest study* I want to share with you concerns the information seeking behaviour of parents of children with cancer.
Why this study matters
For a parent, learning their child has cancer can be overwhelming, stressful, and debilitating. After a new cancer diagnosis, parents seek social support and information from multiple sources including healthcare providers and the internet. Not surprisingly the study shows that parents of children with cancer performed health-related searches at over twice the rate performed by the general population. Online searches peaks at about one month after cancer diagnosis.
To date, little has been known about the specific information parents of children with cancer search for online. Although it has been shown that cancer searches online correlate to cancer prevalence at a population level, little is known about the specific, granular information parents search for online.
Understanding the content of parents’ searches over time offers insight into what matters most to parents and helps to identify knowledge gaps that could inform more comprehensive approaches to family education and support.
Why do parents use the web for information?
The study authors put forward some suggestions for why parents of children with cancer search online for information. One reason may be that they don’t feel their providers shared information in appropriate depth. “Alternatively, because these types of searches require less medical sophistication to interpret, parents may feel more comfortable searching for them online compared with medical information,” the authors suggest. Or parents may simply forget to ask questions about these topics when medical providers are present and subsequently search for supportive care information at a later time.
What kind of information are parents seeking online?
Over half of the cancer-specific searches were for cancer support, such as queries for cancer charities and inspirational quotations.
Among the overall health-related searches, 31% were for “symptoms, disease and medical information.” Supportive care and logistic-related health searches were extremely common, and health insurance searches were also present, although to a lesser extent. Other relatively common health-related search categories included “Medications” (and “Treatment and disease management.”
How health professionals can use this information
The study authors believe the results are most applicable for family support and education.
Given the peak of internet use near the time of diagnosis, educational interventions to improve parents’ ability to navigate the internet for cancer information should be considered.
The authors highlight the need to support parents’ need for logistical information. This “represents a measurable and potentially modifiable domain through interventions such as website design and educational materials.”
Google search content offers insight into what matters to parents of cancer patients. More research is needed to explore use of Google to obtain health-related information and utilize this to inform future education, quality, and research initiatives and better understand how internet use influences healthcare decision-making.
* Charles A Phillips, Alaina Hunt, Mikaela Salvesen‐Quinn, Jorge Guerra, Marilyn M Schapira, L Charles Bailey, Raina M Merchant. Health-related Google searches performed by parents of pediatric oncology patients. Pediatric Blood and Cancer, May 9, 2019. doi: 10.1002/pbc.27795.