Paging Doctor Google: Symptom Search Feature Aims to Provide Better Health Information

The company hopes to calm user anxiety when searching symptoms

Paging Doctor Google: Symptom Search Feature Aims to Provide Better Health Information
Image: Pixabay
June 24, 2016

Flu. Gallbladder infection. Measles. Listeria. Sinus infection.

These were the top five most common symptoms people searched using Google in 2015. What kinds of results did they get?

A simple search for "flu" reveals many not-so-simple results. Recent mentions of the flu in the news. Prevention. Symptoms. Treatments.

Complications.

To make matters worse, not all the sources are necessarily reliable. Some of the results include articles in The New York Times and Wikipedia; summaries authored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the ever-popular WebMD; and a Prevention post about diet and nutrition when fighting off the infection.

How are users to separate the useful information from the chaff? Google believes it has found a way.

"[O]ur goal is to help you to navigate and explore health conditions related to your symptoms, and quickly get to the point where you can do more in-depth research on the web or talk to a health professional," writes Veronica Pinchin, product manager at Google, in a blog post announcing the new symptom search feature.

Unlike the search results for the flu, symptom search itself is simple. When the user searches for one or more symptoms, Google will provide an overview describing the symptom, information about how to self-treat it, and indications regarding when the user should seek medical attention. A list of conditions related to the symptom(s) will also be shown.

How does Google manage all of this?

"We create the 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 for our Knowledge Graph," Pinchin explains. "We worked with a team of medical doctors to carefully review the individual symptom information, and experts at Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic evaluated related conditions for a representative sample of searches to help improve the lists we show."

But even with expert help, Google symptom search cannot take the place of a trained, qualified doctor. The information it provides "is intended for informational purposes only, and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice," cautions Pinchin. "We rely on search results, and we reflect what's on the web. Because of this, your feedback is especially important to us; we'll use it to keep improving the results we show."

In addition to this caveat, the feature is currently only available in English, only in the United States, and only on Google's mobile apps. There is no word on when it will become more widely available.

Until then, anyone outside the US, who does not speak English, or uses a desktop will have to make do with an old-fashioned Google search.