Story by Edwina Seselja

A study from the Queensland University of Technology’s Information Systems School has found seeking medical advice through a quick Google search is not an effective treatment plan.

Researchers now aim to ease the headache for doctors, whose patients often misdiagnose themselves, through improving the accuracy of search engine results.

QUT, along with the CRISRO and Vienna University of Technology have conducted a study  which accessed the effectiveness of results from search engines, when searching health symptoms. It found search engine results were often irrelevant or misleading.

QUT Information Systems School Dr Guido Zuccon is a one of the researchers behind the study. He says people no longer have to time visits doctors and turn to Google instead.

Dr Guido Zuccon is one of the researchers behind the study.
Dr Guido Zuccon is one of the researchers behind the study.

“People commonly turn to ‘Dr Google’ to self-diagnose illnesses or ailments,” Dr Zuccon says.

He says often search engine results are too broad and warns self-diagnosis and self-treatment can lead to, what he refers to as ‘Cyberchindriacs’.

The term describes when people search common health symptoms and end up finding information on rare or serious illnesses and diagnose themselves as a result.

The escalation of health concerns in light of online searching is causing a headache for doctors.

photo

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Shaun Rudd says diagnosis should be left to medical practitioners.

“There are always going to be people who jump to all the wrong conclusions when they Google their symptoms and scare themselves,” he says.

“I think Google can help get more people to the doctor to get checked and that is a good thing.”

What is being done about it?
To avoid misdiagnoses the next step is to create methods of searching that provide the most accurate and informative results.

Dr Zuccon says one challenge will be addressing the types of words people use when searching and what results show up.

Researchers say more people are turning to search engines to diagnose their symptoms.

“[We are] looking at methods to better understand both the medical language and the language people used when searching,” he says.

CSIRO postdoctoral research fellow, Bevan Koopman, says it is important to provide correct information as more people turn to search engines to understand their health conditions.

Dr Bevan Koopman
Dr Bevan Koopman

“With this reliance on these sorts of tools we need to make sure the results are accurate because people are acting on those results,” Mr Koopman says.

“There’s no point providing someone with information from a medical journal that’s really technical,” he says.

He says the focus on improving commercial search engines stemmed from previous efforts to help doctors search for information online.

“It’s not just aimed at the everyday person, it’s also aimed at providing accurate information to doctors to treat their patients.”