Google has now made it easier for armchair physicians to find things to freak out about.
The tech giant just announced the inclusion of medical information to its Knowledge Graph searches, allowing anyone to contradict their doctors right in their offices. Essentially, it amounts to Google’s own souped-up version of WebMD, but with a simpler interface and more direct access. (Of course, it could spell doom for the actual WebMD website, which is still alive and kicking, at least for now.)
The new feature sounds like a handy tool in emergency situations. But it could also have some unintended consequences.
Googlers, Treat Thyself?
Google merely seems to be giving people what they want. According to the company’s blog post, one in 20 Google searches are attempts to find health-related information.
The new feature unearths symptoms, common treatments and illustrations from across the Web, but the results do not rely on cut-and-dry (and sometimes inaccurate) machine algorithms. The data is reviewed by the company’s own Dr. Kapil Parakh, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., and a team of medical experts, including colleagues at the Mayo Clinic. They cull the information from the Web, review it for accuracy and also contribute their own clinical knowledge.
The ability to quickly dig up presumably trustworthy and easily digestible medical information seems like exactly what people would want in a moment of crisis. Concerned parents, say, looking up the severity of their children’s symptoms probably don’t have the presence of mind to trawl through pages and pages of medical jargon or endlessly refine search terms. Obviously, it also gives hypochondriacs plenty of fuel to satiate their compulsive late-night research.
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There’s already a term for this: “cyberchondria,” a variation of hypochondriasis enabled and fueled by obsessive online research. As neurologist, writer and educator Richard C. Senelick wrote in the Huffington Post, “For hypochondriacs and the ‘worried well,’ the Internet is fertile ground to escalate their concerns. [It’s an] interaction of excessive anxiety brought on by the use of online health information….”
He cited a 2008 Microsoft study focusing on online health research. It looked at three common symptoms across 40 million page samples: headaches, muscle spasms and chest pain. The researchers found that, since search engines can’t engage in “diagnostic reasoning” like physicians do, they tend to give common benign disorders and more serious problems equal weight.
See also: Why Google Wants To Padlock The Web
Google enlisted a team of real, live physicians, but they can’t assess individual cases or scenarios. Basically, they’re glorified fact checkers.
Old Problems, Revved By New Tools
There’s nothing new about hypochondria or its cyberchondria off-shoot. It runs rampant, even in the place where future doctors get trained. Every year, hundreds of med students give in to “medical school students’ disease,” which has them imagining they have the same diseases they’re studying.
As for online research of the sort Google has now facilitated, the medical community seems divided. For every story about how it can complicate treatment, with people using online information to challenge or even replace clinical diagnoses, there’s another championing it as a valuable resource that informs and educates patients.
Whether it helps or harms depends on how people use the tools. There’s clearly a tendency for some folks to jump to conclusions based on what they dig up online. For good or bad, Google’s new search could heighten the temptation to self-diagnose.
The company seems to know that. From its blog post:
That doesn’t mean these search results are intended as medical advice. We know that cases can vary in severity from person to person, and that there are bound to be exceptions. What we present is intended for informational purposes only—and you should always consult a healthcare professional if you have a medical concern.
That’s probably not going to stop people from fixating on the worst possible explanation for that mysterious rash or cough. But if users overlook it because of a Google search, or disregard doctors who stubbornly ignore the terminal illness that simply must be causing it, then don’t blame Google. It was just trying to help.
Screencaps courtesy of Google