The analysis of the public interest as reflected by Internet queries has become a highly valuable tool in many fields. The Google Trends platform, providing timely and informative data, has become increasingly popular in health and medical studies. This study explores whether Internet search frequencies for the keyword “headache” have been increasing after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, which could signal an increased incidence of the health problem. Weekly search volume data for 5 years spanning February 2017 to February 2022 were sourced from Google Trends. Six statistical and machine-learning methods were implemented on training and testing sets via pre-set automated forecasting algorithms. Holt-Winters has been identified as overperforming in predicting web query trends through several accuracy measures and the DM test for forecasting superiority and has been employed for producing the baseline level in the estimation of excess query level over the first pandemic wave. Findings indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an increased global incidence of headache (as proxied by related web queries) in the first 6 months after its outbreak, with an excess occurrence of 4.53% globally. However, the study also concludes that the increasing trend in headache incidence at the world level would have continued in the absence of the pandemic, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic event. Results further show mixed correlations at the country-level between COVID-19 infection rates and population web-search behavior, suggesting that the increased headache incidence is caused by pandemic-related factors (i.e. increased stress and mental health problems), rather than a direct effect of coronavirus infections. Other noteworthy findings entail that in the Philippines, the term «headache» was the most frequently searched term in the period spanning February 2020 to February 2022, indicating that headache occurrences are a significant aspect that defines population health at the country level. High relative interest is also detected in Kenya and South Africa after the pandemic outbreak. Additionally, research findings indicate that the relative interest has decreased in some countries (i.e. US, Canada, and Australia), whereas it has increased in others (i.e. India and Pakistan) after the pandemic outbreak. We conclude that observing Internet search habits can provide timely information for policymakers on collective health trends, as opposed to ex-post statistics, and can furthermore yield valuable information for the pain management drug market key players about aggregate consumer behavior.

Fuente: Scientific Reports

Published: 17 June 2022