There is no shortage of health information available online. Roughly 1 percent of searches on Google are symptom-related. But health content on the web can be difficult to navigate, and tends to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions, which can cause unnecessary anxiety and stress. Yet studies have found that much of the information online is incorrect or out of date; Harvard researchers analyzed 23 online symptom checkers and found that they produced an accurate diagnosis as the first result just 34% of the time.
Another problem is that it can be difficult for people without a healthcare background to distinguish between multiple conditions with similar symptoms. Because of this, tech companies including Microsoft and Google are looking for ways to improve the power health search tools.
In June, Google announced it was partnering with Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic to launch a symptom search feature. “Health content on the web can be difficult to navigate, and tends to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions, which can cause unnecessary anxiety and stress,” said Google product manager Veronica Pinchin in a statement. The symptom search feature will “give you an overview description along with information on self-treatment options and what might warrant a doctor’s visit”. Google creates its list of symptoms by “looking for health conditions mentioned in web results, and then checking them against high-quality medical information we’ve collected from doctors”.
Microsoft researchers have been using search to test predictive algorithms. With millions of patients making many millions of health-related searches with similar terms, huge troves of powerful data are being created. Researchers are using these pools of big data to mine for information in search of new tools to help find ways to screen and identify disease and other health risks earlier.
It’s not uncommon for patients to jump to the conclusion that they have a life threatening illness from a common symptom. Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and managing director at Microsoft Research, calls this phenomenon “cyberchondria”. To make things worse, search tends to push the scary rare disease higher – and as a result you’re much more likely to think you have a rare disease.
Speaking from the International Conference on Machine Learning in New York, Horvitz explained that he wants search engines to realize when someone is using it as a diagnostic tool so that it can then, through probability, hone in on and explain the most moste likely conditions.
Source: The Guardian