Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Googling your symptoms & medical history is dangerous territory...

Here's something. Reading an article on the Official Google Blog called "Health Care Information Matters". This is a really fascinating argument that seems to be resurfacing. Interesting link back to the TV Doctor Showdowns that we've been doing... House MD has been making a LOT of jokes in Series 1 and Series 2 about the danger of patients diagnosing themselves. Ah, the Internet. Diagnosis tool of the future. No, you don't have "insert-ridiculously-rare-tropical-disease-name-here"!

So, Google is getting in on the action. Their blog post says:

In the end, one key part of the solution to these problems is a better educated patient. If patients understand their diseases better -- the symptoms, the treatments, the drugs, and the side effects, they are likely to get better and quicker care -- before, during, and after treatment. We have already launched some improvements to web search that help patients more easily find the health information they are looking for. Using the Google Co-op platform, Google and the health community have labeled sites and pages across the web making it easier for users to refine their health queries and locate the medical information they need. Do a search on Google about a medical issue or treatment like diabetes or Lipitor and you'll see some choices for refining your query, such as "symptoms," "treatments," and so on. If you click on "treatment," your search results are refined and reordered so that sites that have been labeled as being about treatment by trusted health community contributors are boosted in the rankings. Note that how trusted a contributor is -– and thus how much they affect your search results -– is dependent both on Google's algorithms and on who the user decides they trust. For example, if my doctor is a Google Co-op contributor and I indicate to Google that I trust her, then when I search, the sites she has labeled as relevant will show up higher in my search results.

This presents an interesting quandry. Do you empower patients with the information, to help them through weak "support" sections of a national health system at the risk of placebo sickness? As a non-medical patient essentially - I think the risk is terrifying. Google my symptoms - and come up with the wrong set of suggestions? I would get hives on the spot.

How much can we trust the Google Search Algorithm, or its users' quality rating of the information it returns? When it comes to correctly equipping me with the right information about my health? I don't know...

The post goes on:

Patients also need to be able to better coordinate and manage their own health information. We believe that patients should control and own their own health information, and should be able to do so easily. Today it is much too difficult to get access to one's health records, for example, because of the substantial administrative obstacles people have to go through and the many places they have to go to collect it all. Compare this to financial information, which is much more available from the various institutions that help manage your financial "health." We believe our industry should help solve this problem.

I'm all for empowering the individual - it's something Google does really well. But a Doctor's handwriting is illegible for a reason! I'm kidding. But the pressing issue here is having health records available via the Internet. Just by definition - private medical records opened up to a world of hackers / crackers and identity thieves has me quivering in my paranoid Internet boots!

How does that suddenly translate to a South African context - where we hold things like HIV status absolutely SACRED. In SA, a medical representative is not even allowed to consult/reveal HIV status to a spouse.

Am I being naive in terms of how such information could be protected on the Web? Or will this open a whole new bag of stigma worms in a country like ours?

Kudos to Google for continually trying to improve and empower. Perhaps we need to take a quick step backwards and consider the consequences?


Anonymous said...


You have made several good points. Goto BMJ (British medical Journal)
and see the hot discussion they are having on Googling for a dx.

Ward Merkeley,M.D.

Andy Hadfield said...

Thanks Ward.. will definitely check it out...

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Andy Hadfield said...

And YOU must be SPAM. You must be. But to go through the trouble of getting through a captcha? Might just let you stay.

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(Here's me expecting a reply from a spammer. Tsk Tsk.)

Eric said...

all blog

Anonymous said...

all blog what?

YoYoYo said...

Just wanted to mention our patient activist and physician oriented Health Search startup "CureHunter". One of our main design goals is to bring patients and physicians closer to the research so they can make the most educated decisions possible and truly begin to practice Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) in real-time.

...without giving anyone your medical records!

Please check it out if you get the chance.

(sorry for the PR)

Andy Hadfield said...

No worries... we're always on the look out for interesting med services. We'll check it out and see if a review is in order :)