by Al Sacco

Google May Help Doctors Diagnose Illness

Nov 10, 20063 mins

Google’s a great resource for finding online information on just about everything, but the next time you’re feeling under the weather and need to visit a doctor, would you be comfortable with your physician “googling” your symptoms in hopes of identifying a particular malady?

According to a report assembled by a number of Australian researchers and published on the British Medical Journal website, Google is increasingly being employed by doctors to diagnose diseases, reports.

Google Screenshot
Google Screenshot

As part of the study, physicians entered between three and five search terms—or symptoms—into Google’s Web search engine and found that it correctly diagnosed illnesses based on the terms in more than half the test cases, Bloomberg reports.

The study, which was conducted by a number of physicians including Hangwi Tang of Australia’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, says that on average, doctors store about 2 million facts in their brains for use in examining patients’ symptoms and diagnosing illnesses, according to Bloomberg. The doctors said that Google can give those physicians access to some 3 billion articles that could be used to help make accurate diagnoses, Bloomberg reports.

“Web-based search engines such as Google are becoming the latest tools in clinical medicine, and doctors in training need to become proficient in their use,” the study reads, according to Bloomberg.

Tang decided to conduct the research after an evaluation of a teenage male with a blood clot whose father was able to correctly diagnose the boy’s sickness before Tang, based on experimentation with entering the patient’s symptoms into Google, Bloomberg reports.

As part of the research, the doctors selected 26 hard-to-diagnose cases that had been published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004, and entered three to five related symptoms into Google, according to Bloomberg. In 58 percent of the trials, Google correctly identified the corresponding illness—and that’s not counting a few instances in which the search engine correctly diagnosed a sickness but was not specific enough for the doctors’ guidelines, Bloomberg reports.

The physicians did note, however, that googling for diagnoses will be more successful if the patient is experiencing clearly defined symptoms, according to Bloomberg.

“We suspect that using Google to search for diagnosis is likely to be more effective with unique symptoms and signs that can be easily used as search terms,” the report reads, according to Bloomberg. “Searches are less likely to be successful in complex diseases with non-specific symptoms or common diseases with rare presentations.”

The doctors also said that patients will likely be less successful in performing self-diagnoses than physicians who are aware of common symptoms and associated illnesses, Bloomberg reports.

Clinical decision support programs are available to many physicians, but they’re not always free and they’re often very difficult to navigate, Tang said, according to Bloomberg. Google is familiar to most Web surfers, and it’s available free of charge.

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