The number of people asking Google for medical advice has skyrocketed in a decade
Google, for all its many undoubtable qualities, is not a doctor. Yes, DeepMind may one day be able to have a good stab at becoming a real-life version of Baymax from Big Hero 6, but for now, the best that typing your symptoms into Google will give you is a WebMD page. A WebMD page, followed by a ropey self-diagnosis, as you try to replace a single web page with the expertise gained through five years of medical school.
Which is why the chart below from our friends at Statista, compiled from data at Eurostat, is so eye-opening. It shows the number of people in 12 European countries who have used the internet for medical advice in the last three weeks – and how it has dramatically grown in the last decade.
That’s not surprising in many ways – the world is a very different place to where it was a decade ago, after all, and we were still a year away from the first iPhone and an era where smartphones became ubiquitous. The temptation to look up a rash is significantly higher when you don’t have to boot up Windows Vista to do so – and cameras now mean you can even post pictures directly to medical forums, should you wish.
I note these stats also include “nutrition” and “improving health” which are demonstrably less risky than typing in symptoms looking for a clear answer. All the same, it bears repeating: Google is not a suitable substitute for a doctor. A 2006 paper found that from 26 cases from the New England Journal of Medicine, just 15 were correctly diagnosed from a Google search. If your doctor gave the correct diagnosis just 58% of the time, you’d register for a different GP.
While Google has undoubtedly improved, it’s still far from fool-proof. Even doctors who are broadly supportive of internet health research concede it’s no substitute. As GP Clare Gerada told The Independent: “This morning, I had three patients, all with exactly the same symptoms and each had a different diagnosis. You need the medical professional to translate the medical knowledge to the individual patient.” As The Mirror found when they asked a selection of qualified doctors to assess Google’s advice for symptoms, it often pulls out the rarer worst case scenario, rather than the more common, less-fatal one.
Still, if people are seeking a second opinion from a doctor, it’s probably not too bad a thing, on balance. Plus people revealing more about their symptoms online can help us predict local health outbreaks. With NHS waiting times increasing with the strain on local services, we can but hope that internet health offerings continue to improve as those numbers seeking web diagnoses edges closer to 100%.