The novel SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus pandemic has had significant global impact on health care. The pandemic's effect on patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is unknown, and health care delivery to this largely immunocompromised population is of concern, as many patients refrained or were unable to seek in-person medical care. We noticed there was a decrease in IBD related Emergency Department (ED) visits. Thus, we aimed to explore if the pandemic influenced IBD specific search trends in the United States. We predicted more patients would search for symptoms or medications using Google in order to self-treat or self-care.
Using Google Trends (GT), we queried Crohn's Disease (CD) or Ulcerative Colitis (UC) in combination with IBD-related symptoms (i.e. bloating, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and diarrhea) or medications (i.e. infliximab and prednisone) between January 1 and April 30 for the years 2018-2020 in the United States. Frequencies of the specific search terms were compared to the site's relative search volume over weekly and monthly intervals. IBD related ED visits were also collected from July 2018 to July 2020. Data was analyzed using monthly and weekly mean search scores compared across years and through 2020 using ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey adjustment for multiple comparisons.
There were decreased search scores for bloating and rectal bleeding with IBD terms occurring during March and April of 2020 compared to years prior but not abdominal pain or diarrhea. The bloating plus CD/UC queries saw the largest variation in 2020 (CD: F = 19.18 with (2,89) df, P < 0.0001, UC: F = 14.08 with (2,89) df, P < 0.0001). For April 2020, medication search terms for infliximab + UC were significantly decreased (F = 47.73 with (2,89) df, P < 0.0001) but not for infliximab + CD (F = 3.08 with (2,89) df, P = 0.051) Prednisone searches also significantly decreased with CD and UC during this time period. In terms of IBD related ER visits, there were 84 in 2018, 99 in 2019, and 15 in 2020. The average quarterly visits in the 30 months preceding Covid was 22.5, while there was only one visit in quarter two of 2020. From March 2020 to July 2020 there were only 4 ED visits total.
Assuming the global pandemic was the main influence of GT during March and April 2020, it appears that some IBD-related searches were significantly reduced compared to pre-pandemic levels, while others did not change. It is possible that patients utilized other services like patient portals and telehealth to communicate with providers instead of Google searches. Interestingly, IBD related ED visits were reduced during the peak of the pandemic, which raises the question and concern of how IBD patients managed their disease during this time. Limitations include the non-specificity of querying a search engine which may not reflect the habits of confirmed diagnosed IBD patients. Further research should investigate how patients cared for themselves during the pandemic. It will be important to continue to monitor the trends of IBD patient utilization of the healthcare system as cities and IBD centers start to reopen to safely and effectively deliver care.