Google Search Models Predict Opioid Overdoses

Predictions and forecasts have been on the minds of marketers for years. They base the propensity to make a purchase on the types of words that people use to search for on engines such as Google and Bing.

Now researchers at the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT) are attempting to predict heroin overdoses using search data.

The epidemic is severe, and it's getting much worse. In Orange County, California, it seems as if I read about deaths from opioids weekly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in March estimates that more than 115 people die daily from opioid overdoes, ranging from prescription pain relievers to heroin and fentanyl.

Researchers have created models that use Google search data from 12 prescription and non-prescription opioids between 2005 and 2011 in nine U.S. metropolitan areas to predict overdoses from heroin. Scientific American reported on the research originally published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in September.



The findings show how Google searches for certain drugs and related slang terms such as "Avinza," "Brown Sugar" and "China White" can be used to explain heroin-related visits to hospitals. The scientists used the model, with one year’s worth of search terms, to predict emergency room visits.

Researchers compared the search data with substance abuse and mental health services records of heroin-related E.R. admissions during the same period. The models can be modified to predict overdoses and narrow searches to specific ZIP codes, which could provide early warnings of overdose. 

A higher number of searches per keyword was associated with more overdoses.

As the Scientific American article points out, not every person uses Google. Although complete accuracy is impossible, models would need to include data from a variety of engines, including Bing.

It’s a promising way to provide early warning of overdoses, but with that knowledge, I believe little will be done to stop or slow the epidemic.

It’s also an indication of the types of technology and models that advertisers can use to reach consumers with advertisements, for everything from legitimate rehab and treatment centers, to that shiny new Lexus or Ford.

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