Some 350 million daily searches on Google are related to medical symptoms. That is a lot of people turning to the web to find out what’s ailing them!

As a result, Google’s announced it’ll start displaying a list of conditions related to symptoms that are described in users’ searches.

So, for example, if someone typed in swollen joints, Google will return a list of conditions typically associated with that symptom (such as arthritis).

On some searches, Google will even provide self-treatment options as well as outline circumstances that could warrant a visit to the doctor.

In their formal announcement, Google stated that, “… by doing this, our goal is to help you to navigate and explore health conditions related to your symptoms, and quickly get to the point where you can do more in-depth research on the web or talk to a health professional.”

So, is this a good thing for patients and doctors alike?

search-resultsMany folks in the healthcare industry have a favorable view of Google’s latest strategy. The way they see it, providing this additional information could help patients separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Someone who’s concerned with a cough could turn to Google and find a list of self-treatment options. If the cough goes away, that’s one less visit to the doctor’s office.

That’s a win for the patient, overbooked doctors, and a severely taxed insurance industry.

But not everyone is wholly supportive of Dr. Google. There are a number of reasons why medical professionals aren’t too keen on giving patients the power to self-diagnose and self-treat conditions.

There are, potentially, would-be patients who’ll forego a doctor’s visit because they’re under the impression they have all the information they need online.

But just as concerning is how online symptom checking can encourage hypochondriac tendencies in people. Googling one’s symptoms can lead that searcher down a rabbit hole of medical information and misinformation, which might lead to them fearing the absolute worst.

And then there’s the accuracy concern

Google Dr 1The accuracy of medical information online has always been a concern. Any website that happens to rank high on a results page can have an impact on a searcher (regardless of how accurate that information is).

That’s why Google’s move to display conditions could actually be a good thing. At least it’s a (rather) large organization concerned with its reputation and protective of its commitment to excellence.

In fact, Google has been clear that its number one goal here is accuracy (while also reminding people that the information it displays is not a substitute for professional medical advice).

Having more control over the accuracy of information found online would be a welcomed change.

A study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School showed that a majority of medical-related websites feature such widespread inconsistencies and inaccuracies that patients shouldn’t rely on them for correct diagnoses.

The correct diagnosis for symptoms searched online came up first in the results only 34% of the time.

In theory, online symptom checkers are a good way to cut down on unnecessary doctor visits. However, the study showed the opposite: due to the inconsistencies and misinformation found online, 2/3rds of patients who checked symptoms online but didn’t need medical attention, sought it anyway.

By having one singular entity (such as Google) present medical-related information, there’s a hope that this epidemic of bad information will eventually dissipate.

Early diagnosis – the power of your searches

medical-diagnosisResearchers from Microsoft (the company behind Bing) recently suggested that records of the topics people search for online could one day be as helpful as an X-ray or MRI in early detection.

The trio of researchers used anonymized search logs to identify people whose search history provided evidence that they’d recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (a fast-spreading disease that all too often is caught too late to cure).

They then analyzed searches for symptoms of the disease over many months prior to identify any patterns of queries that would most likely signal an eventual diagnosis.

“We show specifically that we can identify 5 to 15 percent of cases while preserving extremely low false positive rates of as low as 1 in 100,000,” the researchers wrote.

This new form of screening could ultimately allow patients and their doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses weeks – or even months – earlier than they otherwise would have.

This is an example of search-based technology and the medical community working together. Rather than attempting to perform a diagnosis (which really should be left up to a professional, in a more personal setting), the goal Microsoft researchers are hoping to attain is to identify those with the highest risk to engage with medical professionals, who can then make the true diagnosis.

In the future, it’s very likely that not only will online symptom checking help reduce unneeded doctors’ visits, but it’ll lead the way to identify those patients who should see a doctor immediately.