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How Google’s Enhanced Symptom Search Will Affect You

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About the author: Faisal Al-Alim, MD, is a family medicine physician and a fellowship-trained sports medicine specialist with LVPG Orthopedics. A former college athlete, he chose sports medicine as a specialty because he understands the importance of fitness in a person’s overall health.

Let’s say you have a nagging cough that won’t let up, a headache that feels like its leaking out of your ears or some cranky joint pain that comes and goes too often. What’s the first thing you’re going to do?

Years ago, you might have checked with your family doctor first. But today, you’ll most likely turn to your smartphone or laptop. According to USA Today, 1 percent of all searches on Google – the world’s most popular search engine – are related to health symptoms.

Obviously such a search can be risky, because there’s so much condition information available online, and not all of it is necessarily valid. That’s why Google is rolling out a new feature designed to enhance the accuracy of information on the potential conditions suggested by the symptoms you type into the search box. To make it happen, they’ve consulted with doctors and experts from places such as Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic.

The positives

I think its great Google has taken the time to ensure its presenting medical information that’s as accurate and evidenced-based as possible. Let’s be honest. This is the electronic generation, and people are going online to research things about their health or pretty much anything else imaginable that affects their lives. So this Google symptom search enhancement is a win-win. When you as a patient arrive for your appointment with some basic and accurate information, it helps your doctor make a more accurate diagnosis.

The cautions

That said, you must remember that a Google search is merely presenting possible causes of your symptoms. I’ve seen patients rush in to have me check out routine shoulder pain, and they’re convinced it’s the sign of something much worse – such as a tumor – because of what they’ve read online. It can be difficult for some people to realize that some information they read online is in no way meant to be a diagnosis.

And then there is the danger of self-treatment. Never, ever assume that what you’ve found in your symptoms search should take the place of a physician visit. The three most searched conditions online are headaches, rashes and back pain.

A Google search might suggest a remedy to relieve your headache pain, or mention a virus that’s going around in your region that may be causing your headaches. But the information you’re finding should also mention that if symptoms haven’t been alleviated in a reasonable time – most often three days – then you need to see a physician. That to me is an acceptable way to present this information.

An enhancement, not a replacement

The fact that Google has consulted with the medical community to refine information presented about symptoms and conditions is valuable for patients and doctors to a certain point. But know that researching your medical condition online is far different than, say, ordering food online instead of driving to the restaurant. Your family doctor and other physicians you work with will always understand your personal health best. No online search can replace that.

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