Our case study examining the relationship between abortion policies and abortion rates reveals the potential value of Internet search patterns as a complementary measure of the impact of health policies. Perhaps the most interesting overall finding from this initial analysis is that abortion search volumes had a significant inverse relationship to local abortion rates and availability, and a significant direct relationship to the legislative and policy restrictions on abortion available for study. One likely interpretation of these findings is that individuals with limited access to local abortion services typically use the Internet to search for providers outside their area, while those with greater access to local abortion services may access them through local channels and are thus less likely to turn to the Internet to find an abortion provider. This interpretation is consistent with published evidence that local restrictions lead individuals to seek abortion services outside their area [11, 12].
Another interesting finding is that the coastal US states (blue, Figure 1) tended to have higher abortion rates and lower abortion search volumes than non-coastal states (red). Differences in abortion rates and abortion search volumes were also observed between different regions of the world (Figure 3), as mentioned above. These differences are likely due to general historical, cultural and societal differences between the various regions. These general trends and their outliers require further investigation before conclusions can be drawn about causal relationships.
Further validation of these Internet search data has the potential to provide a valuable complementary data source for measuring the effects of health policies. Basic privacy issues around search data make accessing individual search records for the purposes of validation unfeasible. Furthermore, Internet-based surveys of this topic would be difficult given the sensitivity of the topic. Therefore, a fuller validation of these methods would require a resource intensive observational study. Such a study could involve classic community-based survey or potentially a survey performed at the clinics themselves to determine what the individuals were seeking in their Internet searches, why they chose to search on the Internet as opposed to other means, whether they eventually received an abortion, and if so, where the abortion was performed. Such a study could then be used to further examine the relationships between abortion-related searches, individual searchers' motivations, and rates of procedures performed. This validation could only take place in certain settings, as many of the countries where search results are available would not allow such an analysis for a variety of political or other reasons, highlighting one of the potential advantages of such data to overcome international barriers to health policy research.
Search data have a number of advantages over traditional surveillance sources that make them attractive as potential measures of health outcomes and policies: Timeliness - while traditional data often take years to collect, search data are available in near-real-time; Efficiency - while traditional measures require dedicated reporting infrastructure in each region, and many countries do not have strong public health reporting infrastructures, search data may be automatically collected in a centralized fashion; and Transparency - as mentioned above, search data are available outside traditional reporting channels and thus subject to less government censorship and control.
Limitations of search data include varying online access and Internet search usage across different demographic, socioeconomic and geographic subpopulations, and searches for abortion by individuals who are not seeking abortion services. Evaluation across a range of different settings and topics will provide a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these data. Evaluation will also further clarify the potential benefits of conducting analyses based on data collected over long periods of time, compared to data collected over shorter periods of time that may be subject to a variety of transient effects. Furthermore, access to information on illegal abortions, may provide additional insight into the value of Internet query surveillance.