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  • Lloyd Price

How reliable is Doctor Google?

Studies show that over half of people in the UK are now looking online for advice on how to improve their health and wellbeing, a number sure to increase as more children are born into the digital age. With only a small minority of users starting their search at recognised sites such as NHS Choices, WebMD, Wikipedia or Facebook, Doctor

Google remains the first port of call for gaining insight into all aspects of healthcare.

Healthcare enquiries make up a huge proportion of search engine traffic. According to Pew Research Centre, a US based think tank organisation, they rank as the third most popular type of Google search. With millions of health related searches conducted each day, both by patients and healthcare professionals, the ways in which we deal with health issues on a day-to-day basis have changed dramatically.

Data collected from searches has enormous potential in terms of research, which Google’s analytics team have already harnessed to help track and predict possible health scares and pandemics such as influenza. As Eric Schmidt states in an address to Stanford Business School, Google can evaluate the popularity of a health query by location and then use this information to find patterns and warn health departments of an impending outbreak before it occurs. This gives medical teams the chance to prepare themselves and undertake preventative measures ahead of schedule.

The Reformation

In an article for the British Medical Journal, chair of NHS direct, Joanne Shaw has even likened the new accessibility of health information on the web to the Reformation period. Just as the sixteenth century laity were able to interpret the Bible directly with the advent of the printing press, people today have the newfound freedom to involve themselves heavily in their own healthcare through online tools. While clergymen feared that the laity would not be capable of interpreting the complexities of biblical text, responses from the medical team have also been mixed in regards to the accuracy rates of online self-diagnoses.

Many doctors today remain sceptical that patients can be trusted to evaluate their own condition and give suggestions for treatment. This patient centred approach, however, is here to stay. The rate at which people are using online diagnostic tools shows no sign of slowing and medical professionals can only help regulate and improve the information available to the public.

Responsibility to the public

This online information is generated from sources ranging from regularly updated, reputable sites including NHS Choices, Boots or Macmillan Cancer Research to forums such as Mumsnet or Yahoo Answers, which usually contain information from ordinary people who have encountered similar problems. Google and other search engines have a huge responsibility to deliver only the most relevant, consistent and high quality information and sift through what is considered less reliable. Yet even if Internet users do access reliable information, there is a chance that the symptoms searched for will be too general to generate accurate diagnoses. Medical professionals with experience and background knowledge are far more adept at obtaining correct information from search engines. Of course, Doctor Google cannot give a right answer if the question is wrong.

Quality of search results

In a study conducted by a team of physicians, 15 out of 26 cases were diagnosed correctly in Google’s top results after only three to five search terms were entered for each case. As search engines become increasingly sophisticated it is reasonable to assume that accuracy levels will also increase, provided that the right key words are used.

Nevertheless, Google can only go so far. For anything other than minor, common problems, most of us know that a proper diagnosis can only be undertaken by a trained professional. Furthermore, Internet users might discover information about their particular health problem online and use basic self-help remedies but when it comes to seeking proper medical treatment, we should still turn to our local GP.

Unfortunately, while access to health information has gone through what some may call a ‘Reformation period’, access to professional healthcare has been slow to evolve. This is why sites like Zesty, the online booking platform for healthcare, are working to provide a quick and easy way for patients to book appointments online.

Google has undoubtedly helped shape a new approach to healthcare, one that will continue to evolve to become more patient-centred and allow for greater transparency in the healthcare process. The value, however, of face-to-face interaction between patients and medical professionals must not be underestimated. While Google may serve as a useful tool for dealing with a cold or flu, when in doubt, always book an appointment :)

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