Using the internet as a tool for finding out what’s ailing you is a tried, but not-very-well-tested, online tradition. We’ve all heard those jokes. Maybe we’ve even gone onto WebMD ourselves, typed in our symptoms and then poured through the results in horror, convinced we have Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, or Ebola.
Then you come across a treatment method on a forum that involves soaking in a bath full of corn-syrup and maintaining a strict diet of kale and balsamic vinegar. Medical self-diagnosis and self-treatment can be a bit hit and miss this way.
But now Google’s health search function (not to be confused with the now discontinued Google Health) will attempt to use its content ranking and semantic system to return credible (and hopefully realistic) health advice to those using the search engine for researching symptoms.
How It’ll Work
Google’s health results will work off of the Knowledge Graph algorithm, which is that direct answer you sometimes get when you ask Google a question or pose a query it can quickly figure out. For example, if you Google “Mount Kilimanjaro height”, you’ll get the answer to that above your results (5,895 m). No further research needed. Basically the Knowledge Graph assess multiple data sources based on authority and accuracy (although it mostly uses Wikipedia) and then uses those to try and directly communicate an answer. Apple’s voice-operated Siri works on a very similar principle.
However, as people’s well-being will be at stake, Google Health will be far stricter in what it deems reliable and accurate medical data. The Health database is fact-checked by qualified physicians at Mayo Clinic, which is the world’s largest NPO medical site. Presumably, the function will be integrated into normal search and pop-up automatically when it detects a search query that is symptom related. While you’ll still get all your regular search results, the possible disease or condition you may have will display above them.
Turning the Internet into a Reliable Medical Resource
This is an important development in making online research resources that are inherently credible rather than just plentiful. We’re all aware of that humorously ironic meme: if it’s on the internet, it must be true. While this is a funny and accurate observation, when you consider that over half of adults in the US will research their symptoms on the web before they check any other resource, should there be a concerted effort towards making medical information online more accessible and trustworthy?
This move doesn’t affect the democracy of information online, but is rather attempting to discern when a topic shouldn’t up for debate, and should therefore require an impartial and authoritative answer. Questions like: What’s our distance from the Sun, how do I get to the airport from my house, and is that large rash slowly making its way up my back is “just going to go away by itself?”
Could Automated Data Graphing Be The Future?
As we all know, people have a tendency towards self-diagnosis. Many view this as an unhealthy practice, but in a world where access to affordable medical care is already an obstacle, let alone having the disposable income to visit a doctor every time you get the sniffles, self-diagnosis is a costless alternative for small health concerns and can also cut down on diagnosis and testing costs, when you do eventually visit the doctor.
Despite all its shortcomings, it’s easy to see why the internet is a truly miraculous resource for content and information. It has facilitated the expansion of agriculture in Africa, changed the face of global trading and has given a booming voice to dissidents in oppressed nations, such as Egypt and Ukraine. But it still has miles to go in terms of academic credibility, and moves like this from Google, will not only help develop our trust in online resource, but also revolutionise the potentials benefits we as people can get from it.