Google Playing Doctor With Health Searches

Have you ever experienced a sharp pain in your side or numbness in a leg and used Google to find out whether you should call the doctor? You’re not alone; in fact, so many searchers do this that the search engine giant modified its algorithm to help.

According to a Google blog post by Dr. Roni Zeiger, Google’s Chief Health Strategist,many users searching for symptoms often follow this up with a search for a condition related to those symptoms. For example, those searching for “abdominal pain” may follow it with a search for “irritable bowel syndrome.” So Google decided to speed this process up a little.

According to Dr. Zeiger, “now when you search for a symptom or set of symptoms, you’ll often see a list of possibly related health conditions that you can use to refine your search. The list is generated by our algorithms that analyze data from pages across the web and surface the health conditions that appear to be related to your search.”

How exactly is this different from what you saw before? Greg Sterling, writing for Search Engine Land, included “before and after” screen shots in his article, after noting that the after shots were provided by Google. One screen shot showed results before the change of a search on “headache.” It showed the standard links, with the top one showing the headline “Headache Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis…” with the word “Headache” in bold. That’s quite straightforward.

The after-the-change screen shot for the  “headache” search brings up a box with the heading “Searches related to headache.” Below this is a list of conditions, with the start of a sentence describing that condition. The list includes migraine, tension headache, cluster headache, migraine headache (yes, that’s separate for some reason), and meningitis. The line for migraine says “A recrrent thrubbing headache that typically affects one…” The conditions are in blue, meaning that they’re linked to specific searches for those illnesses. Finally, at the bottom of this box appears the following phrase, in small type: “Drawn from at least 10 websites including nih.gov and wikipedia.org – How this works.” The last three words are also in blue, meaning that they’re linked to a page that explains, at least to some degree, how Google does this particular bit of magic.

As Dr. Zeiger notes, the data you get from this search is aggregated from sites around the web and not from doctors. It should not be construed as medical advice or diagnoses. But it just might make it a little easier to do the research before you make that doctor’s appointment. “We’re humbled by the number of people who turn to Google with such important questions, and we are working especially hard to make our search results even more useful for health searches,” Dr. Zeiger wrote.

Just how many of us perform health-related searches online? Nearly all of us, judging from a Pew Internet report released in late 2010. Out of about 3,000 respondents, 80 percent reported looking online for information on at least one heath-related topic. Sixty-six percent of these Internet users sought information about a specific disease or medical problem.

So what kinds of changes will you see now when you search for health conditions? Well, you may not see any, at least not right away. I tried to make the box appear myself by searching for a few symptoms. It didn’t, regardless of whether I hid or revealed personal search results. Sterling noted that Google apparently plans to be conservative in rolling out this new capability.

If you’re trying to make it appear, it’s worth noting that it shows up for symptoms, not diseases. So you’d have to Google “chest pain” rather than “heart attack,” for example. Or you’d need to try “constant thirst and tired” rather than “diabetes.” (No, neither of these worked for me, alas).

If you’re advertising with Google, especially in a health-related field, you may be worried that this new feature will change your campaign somehow. Sterling reported that “Zeiger told me that nothing on the AdWords side would change or be affected by the new results.” My guess is that this may be part of the reason Google is rolling this health box out slowly. The search giant wants to make sure its advertisers won’t be adversely affected by the change.

While no one has mentioned this possibility, I could see Google reversing this feature. Say a user types in a condition or a disease, such as “stroke” or “stroke symptoms,” and it returns a list of symptoms. In fact, if the search engine returned a short, bulleted list of symptoms at the top of the results for certain medical conditions requiring immediate, emergency attention (such as strokes, heart attacks, diabetic comas, and certain others), it might help save more lives.

The Internet in general, and Google in particular, has been both a blessing and a curse on the medical profession. While users sometimes rely too much on health and medical information they find online, the ability to find this information gives patients a new sense of empowerment. We understand that the responsibility for our own health, in the final analysis, rests squarely in our own hands, and that our doctors are our partners. An informed patient who understands why their doctor wants them to do or avoid doing particular things will get better results, and see better health. Google’s algorithmic change may help us pinpoint what’s really making us sick more quickly, and get us that much closer to getting well again.  

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