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Google Rolls Out Clearer Symptom Search Features

July 02, 2016

The troubles with finding health information by “Googling” – or typing your symptoms into an internet search engine – are well-known. From information created by non-experts to pages that present worst-case-scenarios (example: your headache is probably from a brain tumor), internet-surfers can become confused and frightened by the health information found in their search results.

Health care providers and medical librarians advise patients to avoid these complications of online searching by sticking to established, accurate health sites, such as MedlinePlus.gov, cdc.gov, familydoctor.org and others. (For a list of recommended and reliable health websites, visit: http://caphis.mlanet.org/consumer/index.html). 

However, studies by the Pew Research Center reveal that more than ¾ of those looking for information online begin with a search engine – like Google – rather than starting on a specific health website. 

In order to improve the quality of initial results, Google is releasing a “symptom search” feature that will display a digital card  - tech terminology for a colored box with images and  text -  that will contain quality-controlled information and pictures.  Google has compiled this information from a long list of government and health websites, such as The National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School. Many results can be downloaded into PDF format for easy printing and sharing.  An increasing number of these digital cards/information boxes are available for symptoms, treatments and conditions.

The Google App will present a symptom search with possible related conditions to choose from; for example, a search for “itchy eyes” will list conditions like allergic conjunctivitis, pink eye and seasonal allergies. In addition, the app responds more accurately to “talking to Google”-type searches. Typing “my stomach hurts” into the app will bring back information about abdominal pain and related topics. 

In the coming weeks, Google will ask for all of our help to make their search results better. Feedback requests on the returned information will help to make the search feature more and more accurate for everyone.

It’s important to keep in mind that this information is not individualized and is only a snapshot of information. Medical concerns should always be discussed with a health care provider. And patients should be warned about self-diagnosing. Often, this can lead to one extreme or the other: missing an important diagnosis or causing excessive worry over an incorrect self-diagnosis. 

The Graese Community Health Library at Orlando Health offers its services to the public and can help patients, family members and members of the community find and evaluate health information online.  Questions are welcome through our Ask A Librarian form.  Other health information can be found on the Graese Community Health Library website.

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