Background: The escalating cost of global health care is driving the development of new technologies to identify early indicators of an individual’s risk of disease. Traditionally, epidemiologists have identified such risk factors using medical databases and lengthy clinical studies but these are often limited in size and cost and can fail to take full account of diseases where there are social stigmas or to identify transient acute risk factors.
Objective: Here we report that Web search engine queries coupled with information on Wikipedia access patterns can be used to infer health events associated with an individual user and automatically generate Web-based risk markers for some of the common medical conditions worldwide, from cardiovascular disease to sexually transmitted infections and mental health conditions, as well as pregnancy.
Methods: Using anonymized datasets, we present methods to first distinguish individuals likely to have experienced specific health events, and classify them into distinct categories. We then use the self-controlled case series method to find the incidence of health events in risk periods directly following a user’s search for a query category, and compare to the incidence during other periods for the same individuals.
Results: Searches for pet stores were risk markers for allergy. We also identified some possible new risk markers; for example: searching for fast food and theme restaurants was associated with a transient increase in risk of myocardial infarction, suggesting this exposure goes beyond a long-term risk factor but may also act as an acute trigger of myocardial infarction. Dating and adult content websites were risk markers for sexually transmitted infections, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Conclusions: Web-based methods provide a powerful, low-cost approach to automatically identify risk factors, and support more timely and personalized public health efforts to bring human and economic benefits.