I’ve never thought of Northern Californians as especially prone to dandruff.
But if American Googling habits reflect any degree of pathologic reality, people living in and around Silicon Valley may be flakier than the rest of us. And Kentuckians? Serious asthma problems. People from Detroit? Warts.
A recent survey by healthcare recruiting company Sunfish Staffing used Google search data to see which areas of the country search for certain medical conditions most frequently in proportion to population size.
Of the 20 ailments included in the study, depression was by far the most frequent search nationwide, with an average of over 450,000 monthly queries. When the data were broken down, the highest search rates for depression were in — perhaps predictably — rainy, educated Portland, Oregon and, more surprisingly, Columbus, Ohio.
Despite New York City’s neurotic reputation, searches for anxiety were highest in Boston, while already depressed Columbus also showed up on top for stress.
Beyond just mental health, the new survey also looked at sports injuries (Ed. note: there’s probably a white people joke to be made here about the preponderance of tennis elbow in Minnesota) and dermatological conditions. California might be dandruffy, but Atlanta’s all over athlete’s foot.
Not surprisingly, infectious diseases were of highest interest in densely populated areas like the Northeast, while Nashville lit up the final category, digestive disorders. The survey findings can’t prove that poor diet at least partially contributes Music City’s interest in stomach pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and diarrhea, but given that Tennessee has the sixth highest collection of fast food restaurants in the country, it’s a safe bet.
Guess who also appears to be gastrointestinally afflicted?
Already encumbered with stress and depression, the state capital also tallied the most searches for irritable bowel syndrome, a condition associated with anxiety. With Ohio’s notable lack of therapists per capita, perhaps the people of Columbus are turning to the internet for medical counsel.
Dr. David Rehkoph, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, points out that while, for example, the CDC’s data on regional mental health don’t align with those from the new survey, that disease prevalence isn’t necessarily the only driver of regional disease interest. Perhaps Web searches suggest a lack of healthcare resources in a particular area, a finding that would be of interest to, say, a healthcare staffing company launching a survey of Google search results.
“This could help physicians and public health departments better plan resources and better target increasing awareness of issues that could have major impacts on health,” Rehkoph envisions.
Columbia University epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea — who earlier this year published a study that used Twitter data to identify areas of mental health care needs after the Paris terrorist attacks — feels similarly. While the new findings aren’t overwhelmingly scientific, he explains, data gleaned from web searches and social media can be helpful to public health.
“Data from social media mentions can be useful and guide action,” he says, “This can be done rigorously and usefully and it is being done increasingly so… I’m not pessimistic here at all — this is a promising direction, with appropriate caveats.”
Galea is willing to speculate on some of Sunfish’s findings. Portland’s lack of sunlight could be linked to higher rates of depression. Or maybe the young, tech-savvy city just has a high population of people who, as he puts it, “use the internet to breathe” — maybe Portlanders are just always Googling everything!
Yet Galea cautions against overly interpreting the new findings, which don’t shed any definitive light on cause and effect.
His thoughts on what might be causing psychological unrest in Columbus, Ohio?
“Hard to know!”
Nashville’s digestive curiosity?
“I really can’t say.”
Detroit’s preoccupation with warts?
“This might be similar to the Columbus mystery.”