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February 24th, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Can Google’s new health search change how we manage health?

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According to Google, one is twenty searches is for health information.  For a lot of people, the internet has become the first place to look when a strange symptom, the common cold, or morbid curiosity in the ‘Google Images’ bar strikes.  However, the ‘armchair medicine’ often doled out by the Internet, along with theunscientific popular health discourse introduced by the likes of Dr Oz, has made for murky waters of health information seeking.

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How are we to find relevant, high-quality, and evidence-based health advice when the trillions of gigabytes of Internet space are loaded with misinformation?

Enter the brilliance of Google’s search algorithm. Google has just announced that they will now be adding health information directly into search results. It will be included in the Knowledge Graph – the little box that often appears in the upper right-hand corner, showing basic statistics and information about a subject. The health information will be sourced from a database fact-checked by physicians at the Mayo Clinic, adding credibility, quality, and a sound evidence base . That is, if it done properly, although there is no reason why it should not be.

This new search addition could be revolutionary, in terms of providing accurate health information to people who need it. In 2008, the U.S. Health Information and National Trends Survey (HINTS) found that while over half of the adult American population turns to the Internet first when searching for health information, trust in the Internet as a reliable source of information was low and had declined over the first decade of this century. People often leave Internet health searches feeling frustrated, confused, and likely no closer to the answers they are seeking. Given the major shift we are experiencing in online communication technologies and health information technologies – we may not be far off from being able to access our own electronic health records – information must be available in an appropriate and equitable way so that all people can use the power of technology to better learn about and manage their health.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 87% of all Americans now use the Internet. Ninety percent of them say that the Internet has been a good thing for them personally, and three-quarters say that the Internet has been a good thing for society. It seems as though Google’s new health search addition will contribute to this positive attitude – and to the ubiquity of this company in the digital information industry. The transformative power of Internet searching on people’s behaviour and health management is yet to be determined.

Image credit:  Carlos Luna |  Flickr
Via PLOS

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