Search engines are one of the first places many Americans turn when looking for health information, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center. But what they may not know is that the data from these searches is collected by the search engine and is increasingly being used for health research and public health surveillance.
The data has enormous potential to help researchers better understand pressing public health issues and perhaps even to identify individuals at risk of developing serious disease. But this emerging venue for health research also poses new questions about what constitutes consent for research use of online health information and what role corporations, who own the data, should play in the process.
“Innovation is crucial in our world, and these approaches that have shown promise should be pursued if we develop appropriate methods to ensure the benefit to society and individual patients,” said Mauricio Santillana, PhD, a member of the faculty at Boston Children’s Hospital and an associate at Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science.