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Study: Seasons May Affect Mental Health More Than Previously Thought

It may truly feel like summer today, which could bode well for people with a range of mental illness (and not just those of us with seasonal affective disorder desperately awaiting warmth and sunshine).

A new analysis of mental health inquiries in the U.S. and Australia found that Google searches for specific mental illnesses — including eating disorders, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, were all down in summertime compared to winter. This led researchers to surmise that mental illness of all varieties may have stronger links to the seasons than previously thought. The new work (with funding from Google.org) is published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

sunbatherFrom the news release:

Using Google’s public database of queries, the study team identified and monitored mental health queries in the United States and Australia for 2006 through 2010. All queries relating to mental health were captured and then grouped by type of mental illness, including ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), anxiety, bipolar, depression, eating disorders (including anorexia or bulimia), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), schizophrenia, and suicide. Using advanced mathematical methods to identify trends, the authors found all mental health queries in both countries were consistently higher in winter than summer.

The research showed eating disorder searches were down 37 percent in summers versus winters in the U.S., and 42 percent in summers in Australia. Schizophrenia searches decreased 37 percent during U.S. summers and by 36 percent in Australia.

Bipolar searches were down 16 percent during U.S. summers and 17 percent during Australian summers; ADHD searches decreased by 28 percent in the U.S. and 31 percent in Australia during summertime. OCD searches were down 18 percent and 15 percent, and bipolar searches decreased by 18 percent and 16 percent, in the U.S. and Australia respectively.

Searches for suicide declined 24 and 29 percent during U.S. and Australian summers and anxiety searches had the smallest seasonal change – down 7 percent during U.S. summers and 15 percent during Australian summers.

While some conditions, such as seasonal affective disorder, are known to be associated with seasonal weather patterns, the connections between seasons and a number of major disorders were surprising. “We didn’t expect to find similar winter peaks and summer troughs for queries involving every specific mental illness or problem we studied, however, the results consistently showed seasonal effects across all conditions – even after adjusting for media trends,” said James Niels Rosenquist, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Continue reading

What Killed Google Health? And What Does Its Untimely Demise Mean?

I love a good mystery. And I’ve noticed one post-mortem analysis after another lately exploring the recently announced impending demise of Google Health, a service aimed at helping people manage their own health information. Why would as powerful an entity as Google abandon so major a project in such a seemingly promising field?

Google’s own explanation, in a blog post, is that the service just “didn’t catch on” as hoped. That rings true to me: Here I am, immersed in health care news, and I’d heard little about Google Health and nothing enticing enough to make me want to sign up. But the answers go deeper.

In MIT’s Technology Review, David Talbot recently wrote of Google Health that its passing reflects a broken medical system: “Experts say its untimely death is, in many ways, an extension of U.S. health-care providers’ failure to share data across institutions, or make it easy for patients to obtain it.” (Tech Review also has an interesting new article out here about a Cambridge company’s health-tracking platform for employers.)

I just spoke with Dr. Kenneth Mandl, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, physician and researcher in the informatics program at Children’s Hospital Boston, and co-founder of the open-source project Indivo, the first electronic personal health record. Indivo, he says, began in 1998, inspired the Google Health model in 2006 and is still in wide use, including for patients at Children’s.

The concept behind personal health records is that each of us should have access to our own medical information, and the ability to share it where needed—with our doctors, our family, and with computer apps that can help care for us. Here is his detective work, lightly distilled:

Q: So, Ken, whodunit?

Basically, it was a combination of a couple of factors—the stagnant data flow in the health system and some failures in Google’s strategic execution.
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The data about our health histories, medications and treatments, usually captured by our physicians on paper or, increasingly, in electronic health records, usually stay put—in physicians’ offices or hospitals–even though federal law entitles patients to copies of their electronic health records.

‘They didn’t do very well in establishing a trust model. What would Google do with your health data once they had it?’

And Google was more dependent on real ‘data liquidity’ than I think they fully realized. Job number one for them, with their enormous resources, should have been to try to ensure that there were generalizable, standardized ways to move data around in the health system. They needed to dig in and do serious engineering with clinical systems. But they didn’t do that. They were hoping to sit on a high perch and to provide storage and applications for managing that data. But the data were not there.

So there’s real work to be done. Google was a little ahead of its time in a sense, but really, they should have spent more energy and dollars helping to generate data flows through policy reform and technological innovation.

Also, Google Health fell short as an “apps” platform. Contrast it with the iPhone platform — Google never really captured a serious community of third-party developers who could add value to data by generating apps that could run against their programming interface. Continue reading