What ails you? If the 2012 Google Zeitgeist trending health issues is any indication, it's your bum.
Yes, "hemorrhoids" tops the list this year. Why? "I don't know, but hemorrhoids are definitely a pain in the butt," says Satish Rattan, DVM, a professor of medicine in the department of gastroenterology at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He's doing pioneering research on molecular causes of hemorrhoids. "It's a matter of dignity," he explains.
Moving up the GI track, the second biggest trending term is gastroesophageal reflux, a.k.a., GERD. Other trending GI issues include heartburn (#8) and celiac disease (#9).
The third biggest trending term, though, is "sexually transmitted diseases." (Also, herpes is #5 among most searched terms.) Here it gets interesting: How often you search for STDs depends on what device you're using — a phone or a computer.
"STDs are much higher on the list of searches for mobile devices," says Susannah Fox, associate director at the Pew Internet Project, who runs the health research. One possible reason: "Mobile users are more likely to be younger." Internet versus mobile health searchers are most likely to be in the 30-to-54 age range, she says, perhaps past the peak ages for STD worry.
Why do we love these lists? "The web is so big, and overwhelming, there's always a wonder if you're really connected to what's really going on," says Amy Tenderich, who runs the popular Diabetes Mine blog (about Type 1 diabetes), and works for the company that runs Diabetic Connect, a community and ask-the-expert site. "You want to know what's hot, what everyone is talking about, so you don't miss anything."
Diabetes, it turns out, is hot. It shows up as number two on two other lists: most searched terms, and most searched symptoms. However, once people find out the basics through search, they may dive deeper through social networking sites.
"People are asking if social networks are replacing search as a source of information," says Pew's Fox. "We looked at that in our 2012 survey, which will be released in a couple of weeks. We found that, in general, search is still king. When looking for health information in 2012, 77 percent still started with a search engine like Google, Bing or Yahoo, 13 percent started with a special site like WebMD, and two percent started at a site like Wikipedia. Only one percent started with a social site like Facebook or Twitter."
But that changes for people who have chronic conditions. "We're finding that social networking sites and blogs are common sources for people who are living with chronic conditions. They're looking for practical tips."
What's next? How will we be getting our digital health information in the future? While Google search terms aren't likely to change —cancer, diabetes, and depression have been top search terms for years— some trends are emerging:
On blogs like Diabetes Mine or sites like Diabetes Connect, people can ask questions and get answers from others living with exactly those conditions. (One post about a new drug now has 2,000 comments.) "About 1 in 5 Internet users have gone online to find others who have similar health concerns," says Fox.
Of course it's growing, but when it comes to health, perhaps slower than the hype. In 2012, 85 percent of U.S. adults owned a cell phone, but only 31 percent used it to search for health info online. Mobile apps for exercise and dieting are popular, but we're not yet using our phones as a primary source of health info–or to get text health alerts. By contrast, while the same percentage of Americans have access to the Internet, 84 percent have used it to search health information.
Once, perhaps, your doctor was the main source of health info. Now many people go online before they see their docs. Some physicians welcome that, a movement call Participatory Medicine. Some even "prescribe" websites for certain patients.
"The mindset is changing," says Daniel Sands, MD, MPH, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine. "Doctors may direct patients to health care websites, rather than just prescribing drugs." At the same time, doctors who subscribe to participatory medicine—they can actually get a seal from the website—welcome patients who learn about health online.
"We should ask every single patient, 'Do you go online? What sites do you find useful?" says Dr. Sands. "We need to let them know that they can share information with us. It's a very important part of our relationship with our patients." Over the next few years, more and more patients will be able to view their health records online, download and transmit it to someone else, and communicate with their doctors, he says. "The era of medicine as a spectator sport — 'I'm sick, doctor, fix me' – is over. The new model is participatory medicine."
Here are the 2012 Google Zeitgeist lists. Let the 2013 searching begin!
United States Trending Health Issues 2012
2. Gastroesophageal reflux disease
3. Sexually Transmitted Disease
4. Diaper Rash
6. Urinary tract infection
9. Celiac disease
United States Most-Searched Health Issues 2012
6. Back pain
8. Breast cancer
United States Most-Searched Symptoms 2012
1. Pregnancy symptoms
2. Diabetes symptoms
3. Flu symptoms
4. UTI symptoms
5. Mono symptoms
6. Strep Throat symptoms
7. HIV symptoms
8. Lupus symptoms
9. Heart Attack symptoms
10. Lyme Disease symptoms