Google as Your Doctor?

Not quite, but advice on symptoms is only a click away
By Denisse Moreno
Denisse Moreno
Denisse Moreno
June 22, 2016 Updated: June 26, 2016

Have a peculiar pain but don’t know what to do about it? Millions turn to Google when searching for information on symptoms they are experiencing, and now the company will make it easier.

Individuals will now be able to ask Google about symptoms, and the search engine will provide a list of related conditions, the company announced this week.

How It Works

If someone types in “headache on one side,” Google will show associated conditions like “headache,” “migraine,” “tension headache,” “cluster headache,” “sinusitis,” and “common cold.”

For single symptoms, such as “headache,” Google will give an overview description, along with information on self-treatment options, and whether the condition might warrant a visit to a healthcare provider.

“By doing this, our 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,” the company said. 

Google says it’s improving information on symptoms with the help from a team of medical doctors and experts from Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School.

The search-engine company said roughly 1 percent of searches on Google, which are millions of searches, are related to users researching symptoms.

Google will use its Knowledge Graph feature, which was launched last year, to strengthen search results for users.

“If I was a young person and untrained in medicine I would find this a handy resource,” said Dr. Nicholas Genes, associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

He says the Google tool will be friendlier and more efficient for patients.

The symptoms search may also be a good way to get people more involved in their health care.

“I think that an engaged patient who is curious about his or her condition is a motivated patient,” says Genes, adding that he’s “always happy to see patients who taken interest in [their] health” by researching beforehand.

The Google I/O developers conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in this file photo. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Google I/O developers conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in this file photo. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google is not ready to become your private doctor, though.

“Symptom search (like all medical information on Google) is intended for informational purposes only, and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice,” the company said in a post.

“They’ve been clear it’s not medical advice,” said Genes. “The things that they say are self-treatable are things that can be treated with over-the-counter medicine and rest.”

In a few days, the feature for symptoms will be available on mobile devices in English in the United States first, and the tool will later expand into other languages and countries.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future healthcare institutions took these matters into their own hands,” Genes said.

“In the future we’ll be seeing more of this.”