Need a Diagnosis? Dr. Google Wants to Help

Need a Diagnosis? Dr. Google Wants to Help
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On Monday, Google’s mobile site, as well as its iOS and Android apps, introduced a feature designed to help users find more relevant information on medical symptoms. You don’t have to enter a specific symptom to get information; you can look up something as vague as “my stomach hurts.”

You have to be relatively careful when it comes to looking up symptoms online. Online symptom checkers are notorious for suggesting deadly diseases and scaring the wits out of people. As an example, WebMD’s symptom checker does such a good job of freaking people out with its lists of potential diagnoses that dozens of humorous Internet memes have been created poking fun at it.

That’s not to say symptom searches have no value; I narrowly avoided sepsis by looking up my own symptoms a few years ago. It can come in handy in the middle of the night, when you’re not sure whether to go to the ER or tough it out till morning.

Gathering Information from Multiple Sources

Part of the problem with sites like WebMD, though, is that they send you to information found only on that site. Google wants to help people look up medical information from a variety of sources so they get more than 1 perspective.

Google responds by providing an overview of possible conditions and treatments, and directions on how to locate more information online, as well as which type of doctor may be able to help.

Google generally points users to specialized sites, including WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and Medline Plus. (On a personal note, I find much more specific, not to mention realistic, information on the Mayo Clinic’s site.)

But you won’t necessarily be sent to the specific information you’re looking for; you might have to sift through page after page to find the info you need.

Google assembled a list of symptoms found in search results, including everything from “headache on one side” to “bruise around eye,” to “lower back pain.” The company then checked those symptoms against medical information culled from doctors for its Knowledge Graph, which CNET describes as “an advanced feature that tries to deliver and display a more comprehensive collection of data.”

Your symptom search results then pop up in a single “condition” panel, so all of the information is centralized in 1 location.

Google even called in some doctors to assist them with the new feature. The Wall Street Journal reports the Alphabet-owned company worked with Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic to build about a 1/2-dozen digital cards you can swipe through right below the search box. Each card briefly describes a common health problem related to your search term.

Where possible, the digital cards will say whether there are self-treatment options available, or whether a related health problem is serious enough to warrant professional medical care. The same old list of website links will be visible beneath the cards.

A Google spokesman explained to CNET:

“To get this information, we worked with a team of medical doctors to carefully review the individual symptom information and develop the way we build the related health conditions list. We also had experts at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic evaluate related conditions for a representative set of searches to help improve the lists we show.”

For now, Google’s symptom search will be available only through Google’s mobile site and apps, not through its desktop website, and only in the U.S. and in English. It could take a day or 2 to roll it out to all users.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into the medical world. In late 2015, Google filed a patent for “needle-free” glucose testing technology. The blood draw system sends an “abrupt surge” of gas into a barrel that houses a “micro-particle” that punctures the skin and draws a tiny droplet of blood. The droplet is sucked into a negative pressure barrel.

The process is supposed to be quicker, easier, and less painful than traditional glucose testing, which requires people to stab themselves in the finger with a small needle in order for a glucose meter to test sugar levels.

Google hopes the technology will one day replace traditional glucose meters entirely.

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