The Internet has become the first source for health information for many patients. Patient education on food allergy is provided by the online and offline programs of national organizations such as ACAAI and AAAAI, and the efforts of individual allergists. It would be helpful to design the education on a particular topic based on patient questions. Our aim was to determine the utility of Google Trends, a free online service by Google that can be used to rank the popularity of patient queries fielded in Google search engine, with fine granularity down to the population unit of a city/town.
We used the research tool Google Trends (google.com/trends) which has recorded billions of search queries since 2004 and is provided at no charge by Google, Inc. Google Trends was searched for food allergy-related terms such as the top 8 food allergens, for example, “peanut allergy”, “milk allergy”, etc. The data was scaled to the average search traffic for a particular term during the selected time period.
The Internet searches for different food allergies showed frequencies that did not always reflect the prevalence of those allergies in real life. The most popular searches were for milk allergy (50 on 0/100 scale), peanut (45), wheat (33), egg (21), shellfish (9), fish (8), tree nut (3) vs. real-life prevalence of food allergy to egg 0.9%, peanut 0.75%, milk 0.6%, shellfish 0.6%, fish 0.2%, tree nuts 0.04-0.6%, wheat 0.2-0.5%, soy 0.03-0.2% (J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010 Dec;126(6 Suppl):S1-58).
However, the searches showed what the patients in each region were interested in, including some less obvious ones. For example, queries for “peanut oil” dominated searches for peanut allergy, coconut for tree nut allergy, “lactose allergy” for milk allergy, and “vaccine” for egg allergy. “Iodine allergy” still dominates the searches for shellfish allergy and “fish oil” for fish allergy. Searches for treatment of food allergy were not popular. The data can be subdivided by region, state or city/town.
Food allergy-related Internet searches reflect misconceptions about the prevalence, etiology and clinical presentations of different food allergies. The common questions can be ranked by popularity by Google Trends, thus allowing healthcare professionals to address common misconceptions in a specific geographic region, for example, the significance of peanut oil in peanut allergy, misconception about “iodine allergy” in shellfish allergy, etc. It is concerning that search queries do not reflect interest in treatment of food allergy. Knowledge of such search patterns gives the allergy organizations and practicing allergists the opportunity to tailor their online and offline educational programs to what patients want, and need, to know. From educational perspective, an engaged learner who is actively searching for information offers the best opportunity for lasting impact.
Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States: Report of the NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel. JACI, 2010.
Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S. FARE.