Google's symptom cards aim to improve how you diagnose

Google says its new symptom search cards on smartphone apps will show related conditions such as headache and migraine together to better flag when a health problem is serious enough to seek professional medical help.

Search engine turns to Harvard, Mayo Clinic to develop symptom cards above results

Elizabeth Ortiz uses the Asthma Health smartphone app daily to track her condition. Google acknowledges health information can be difficult to navigate, and tends to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Google says its new symptom search cards on smartphone apps will show related conditions such as headache and migraine together to better flag when a health problem is serious enough to seek professional medical help.

Dr. Google is popular, but when it's off base, consumers and physicians can be led to confusing and unsubstantiated information.  

The search engine said on its blog that about 1 per cent of searches are symptom-related.

Some medical schools and government agencies offer more sophisticated "symptom checkers" that ask people to list their symptoms and use a computerized algorithm to suggest whether to seek medical care immediately, see a doctor in the next few days or just take it easy at home.

Last year, researchers at Harvard Medical School found online symptom checkers gave appropriate triage advice, like whether to get to a doctor quickly, in 57 per cent of cases.

In a blog post on Monday, Google acknowledged health information can be difficult to navigate, and tends to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions, which can cause anxiety and stress. 

Google turned to Harvard and the Mayo Clinic to develop symptom cards that will appear above its conventional search results.

Google symptom cards aim to address how health searches tend to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions. (Google)

"So starting in the coming days, when you ask Google about symptoms like "headache on one side," we'll show you a list of related conditions ("headache," "migraine," "tension headache," "cluster headache," "sinusitis," and "common cold"). For individual symptoms like "headache," we'll also give you an overview description along with information on self-treatment options and what might warrant a doctor's visit," the blog post reads.

The company said it will roll out the update on mobile over the next few days in English in the U.S.

Undo the consequences of Google searches

Dr. Brett Taylor is a professor of emergency medicine and medical informatics at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He's leading a project to test how an iPad mini app helps to distract children with an informative game while reporting their pain levels while they wait. 

"My first response to Google's new initiative is: show me," Taylor said in an email Tuesday.

Taylor would like to see evidence the new algorithm is: 

  • More useful to patients.
  • Creates less unnecessary alarm.
  • Doesn't inappropriately reassure patients who should seek care.
  • Better educates patients.

Taylor said currently when people reach a family doctor or pediatrician, "we often have to undo ("deprogram"?) the consequences of Google searching before we can even begin the teaching around our recommended management." 

Taylor wasn't able to test the new service. 

The company plans to expand the services internationally and make it available in other languages.