Is asking Dr Google a good idea?

June 29, 2016

Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.

See current opportunities

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 09.57.13

In the next few days, you may notice Google looking a bit differently. The search engine has long been able to make calculations for you or answer simple questions, but now its new health search app will aim to provide you with accurate symptom information for everything from migraines to sickness bugs.

Working with teams from Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, Google says the service will allow users to “navigate and explore health conditions related to [their] symptoms, and quickly get to the point where [they] can do more in-depth research on the web or talk to a health professional.” This means you can get simple, straightforward guidance without you needing to see a doctor (or diagnose yourself with another frightening illness you find online).

With 1 in 20 searches on Google being health or symptom-related, it seems great that Google is speeding up our searching process like this. But is typing in your symptoms really a good idea?



The problem for patients

We all know a horror story (whether true or not) about someone who has unknowingly had a serious illness, believing their symptoms were tiredness or stress. However, the majority of the time the opposite is the case, and googling our back pain or headache can often lead to further worry about conditions we more than likely don’t have. The most googled symptoms in the UK last year were actually related to common, treatable illnesses such as chickenpox and diabetes.

Self-diagnosis may put unnecessary strain on our health services by causing people even more stress and uncertainty, but you could also argue that it can be reassuring for people looking to treat minor illnesses. If you’re looking for a good soothing remedy for sunburn or some tips on iron-rich foods, for instance, the internet can be a time-saving resource for everyone.

The problem for health professionals

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals have undertaken years of intense training to be able to perform their jobs well. After you qualify as a health professional, you too will become a vital source of advice and guidance for patients.

There is a lot of inaccurate or misleading information on the internet about every imaginable topic, and healthcare is no different. There are forums full of people discussing the side effects of different medications or the negative effects of some procedures – after all, people rarely come online to report a ‘normal’ experience. The only person to help patients weigh up the pros and cons of any treatment is a health professional, and it can be very difficult to reassure a patient or their worried relative if they have read too much information online.

Is Dr Google’s diagnosis accurate?

There have been several studies to look at whether symptom checking websites provide the right triage advice (whether patients should stay at home, make a doctor’s appointment or visit the hospital straight away).

One such study, led by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, tested the 23 top websites and found that the correct triage advice was given only 58% of the time. They were much better at detecting serious or life-threatening symptoms (around 80%), but without being able to see, feel or take the pulse of a patient, it’s clear that it’s hard to make an accurate assessment.

So what does the future hold?

Despite our reliance on the internet, it’s unlikely that Google is going to replace health professionals any time soon. However, it may change how the health industry works, and doctors and nurses will have to be prepared for patients who have looked up their symptoms online and are expecting the worst.

It seems a good idea that Google is streamlining their facility, but in our opinion, nothing will easily replace the quick-thinking, problem-solving and, above all, caring nature of a good doctor, nurse or midwife.



Chat with us on Facebook or Twitter, or email

Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.