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If you Google your symptoms, diagnosis may be cyberchondria


SAN FRANCISCO — Yellow discharge. Scratchy throat. Sore knee. Millions of searches on Google — in fact 1 per cent of all searches — are to look up symptoms such as these.

Yet, too often, diagnosis by Google isn’t all that reliable.

Google is rolling out a new feature over the next few days in English in the U.S. to make it easier to get a more accurate list of health conditions that could be causing your symptoms.

Ask Google about a symptom, say “headache on the side,” it will show you a list of related conditions such as migraine, tension headache or sinusitis. Ask about “headache,” and you’ll get an overview of the health conditions plus information on how to treat the headache and whether you should see a doctor.

Google created the list of symptoms by researching health conditions mentioned in Web results and then checking those conditions against information collected from doctors. A team of doctors reviewed the symptom information and experts at Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic evaluated related conditions for a representative sample of searches, said product manager Veronica Pinchin. Over time Google will cover more symptoms and will offer the feature in other languages and internationally, she said.

Patients and their family members increasingly turn to the Internet as a major source of medical advice. It’s not a surprise that Google is our No. 1 destination for health information as it’s the place we scour for most questions we want answered. But entering keywords into a search engine doesn’t always lead to the right medical condition or even to medically reliable information.

Many people when they become ill, the Internet is often their first source of information. Given Google’s prominence there, that often also equates with going to Google. We also know that the process doesn’t work very well,” said Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Anything Google does in this space to improve that process is going to be helpful for patients.”

Health conditions are among the most frequently searched topics on Google. One in 20 Google searches is health related. One in five health searches is symptom related.

Pinchin says Google works with medical professionals to surface the most relevant and trusted results, but that information is not intended as medical advice. Google should be treated as a “starting off point,” Pinchin said.

Doctors aren’t always fans of patients hitting the Internet to diagnose themselves. Some patients rush to the doctor after sleepless nights spent worrying about rare diseases or sweating over health information that isn’t relevant or is riddled with falsehoods. The diagnosis for these patients? Cyberchondria, brought on by too much Googling, Mehrotra said.

Improving the quality of medical information will be “extremely helpful,” he said.

A study Mehrotra and fellow researchers conducted on online symptom checkers showed a third of them got the correct diagnosis. By way of comparison, doctors have a 80 per cent to 90 per cent accuracy rate.

“Even though these tools are pretty fancy, pretty cool and pretty helpful, they often give inaccurate information,” Mehrotra said. “It’s hard to do make a diagnosis based on a couple of symptoms. So patients have to be very careful about the information they get from the Internet.”

TORONTO STAR | LIFE | HEALTH_WELLNESS