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How Google is trying to make online self-diagnosis less terrifying

Self-diagnosing your ailments online can be a frightening endeavor.
Thomas Trutschel

You’re up late at night and you notice a strange rash on your thigh.

You’re worried — so the first thing you do is turn to Google and type in your symptoms.

If that scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Roughly 1 percent of the billions of Google searches performed every day are symptom-related.

Most of the time, these searches lead you down a WebMD- and Wikipedia-fueled rabbit hole that usually ends on a diagnosis of cancer or a sexually transmitted disease.

Google knows that. And the search engine has been working with doctors so "fewer unnecessarily scary conditions show up," said Veronica Pinchin, a product manager on Google's search team.

With the company’s new and improved symptom search, which recently launched on mobile in the United States, Google aims to deliver more accurate and accessible medical information to users.


The symptom search provides physician-vetted, plain-language summaries of common medical ailments, as well as self-treatment options and advice about when that rash ought to be checked out by a living, breathing doctor.

Or if you type in "headache on one side," the potential ailments that pop up include "migraine," "tension headache," and "sinusitis" — but not brain cancer.

We talked to Pinchin about Google’s effort to make finding high-quality medical information less anxiety-inducing. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Julia Belluz: It’s probably not a stretch to say that the most honest relationship many people will ever have is with Google. You must see some pretty wild health searches.

Veronica Pinchin: There’s a lot of things we see on Google that I think people are too embarrassed to talk to their doctors about or ask friends or roommates about. So we see a lot of things — like diarrhea, bowel movements, questions about genital issues or possible STDs.

But that’s also why we want to make sure we provide people with guidance if they are searching for something.

JB: As you know, there are other online symptom checkers that seem to give people really scary potential diagnoses. How is Google’s symptom search going to be different?

VP: Previously, you had to know the name of the conditions, treatment, or specific medical term to find high-quality information. But with symptom search, you can use your own language to describe what you’re feeling and see a list of high-quality medical results.


JB: How exactly do you ensure quality of information on these searches?

VP: The first piece really is Google search. If someone comes to Google and searches "my tummy aches," we can interpret and understand what that means in medical language. "My tummy hurts" to doctors means abdominal pain. So we use the power of Google search to understand what relevant topics are related to that search.

The second piece is the health Knowledge Graph — extremely high-quality information we worked with doctors, including at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, to build. [The doctors] reviewed the list of conditions we built for a representative sample of searches and gave us feedback. We were able to improve on what we built over time based on that feedback.

So [our search function] tries to promote things that are more likely in society and more common in the US. But there are always cases where things that are less likely might show up on that list. So it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, which is why we emphasize it’s not diagnosis and it’s more exploration. If our users do have a real medical concern, we encourage them to see a doctor.

JB: A paranoid question: If people look for symptoms on symptom search, will related ads pop up?

VP: Symptom search will have no interaction with ads. Before a symptom search and after, the 10 blue links below and the ads above will remain unchanged.

JB: You told me about weird and funny searches, but what are the most common things people look for?

VP: It’s Individual things like headaches, fever, cough — high-level starting points. We see people coming to Google with those simple symptoms.

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