Internet Searches for Medical Symptoms Before Seeking Information on 12-Step Addiction Treatment Programs: A Web-Search Log Analysis

George Nitzburg, Ingmar Weber, Elad Yom-Tov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


BACKGROUND: Brief intervention is a critical method for identifying patients with problematic substance use in primary care settings and for motivating them to consider treatment options. However, despite considerable evidence of delay discounting in patients with substance use disorders, most brief advice by physicians focuses on the long-term negative medical consequences, which may not be the best way to motivate patients to seek treatment information. OBJECTIVE: Identification of the specific symptoms that most motivate individuals to seek treatment information may offer insights for further improving brief interventions. To this end, we used anonymized internet search engine data to investigate which medical conditions and symptoms preceded searches for 12-step meeting locators and general 12-step information. METHODS: We extracted all queries made by people in the United States on the Bing search engine from November 2016 to July 2017. These queries were filtered for those who mentioned seeking Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA); in addition, queries that contained a medical symptom or condition or a synonym thereof were analyzed. We identified medical symptoms and conditions that predicted searches for seeking treatment at different time lags. Specifically, symptom queries were first determined to be significantly predictive of subsequent 12-step queries if the probability of querying a medical symptom by those who later sought information about the 12-step program exceeded the probability of that same query being made by a comparison group of all other Bing users in the United States. Second, we examined symptom queries preceding queries on the 12-step program at time lags of 0-7 days, 7-14 days, and 14-30 days, where the probability of asking about a medical symptom was greater in the 30-day time window preceding 12-step program information-seeking as compared to all previous times that the symptom was queried. RESULTS: In our sample of 11,784 persons, we found 10 medical symptoms that predicted AA information seeking and 9 symptoms that predicted NA information seeking. Of these symptoms, a substantial number could be categorized as nonsevere in nature. Moreover, when medical symptom persistence was examined across a 1-month time period, a substantial number of nonsevere, yet persistent, symptoms were identified. CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that many common or nonsevere medical symptoms and conditions motivate subsequent interest in AA and NA programs. In addition to highlighting severe long-term consequences, brief interventions could be restructured to highlight how increasing substance misuse can worsen discomfort from common medical symptoms in the short term, as well as how these worsening symptoms could exacerbate social embarrassment or decrease physical attractiveness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e10946
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 4 Apr 2019



  • 12-step programs
  • alcohol use disorder
  • anonymized internet search log data
  • brief intervention
  • brief physician advice
  • substance use disorder

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics

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