Expert Insights: when to be cautious of Dr Google’s diagnosis


According to recent research, nearly half of people in Britain turn to Dr Google before visiting a GP, despite online diagnosis being proven as less accurate than a doctor’s.

It seems that Dr Google is on everybody’s minds, including the search engine itself. In Britain and across the world, people are making a habit of checking health issues on their smartphones. The search engine is all too aware of its user’s dependency on the platform to give accurate health information. In August 2019, Google began rolling out algorithm updates to assess the quality of health-related content online. The most well-known of these is the Medic update.

Researchers have also shown their concern, making Dr Google the focus of numerous studies. Most research on the matter concludes that online diagnosis is bad, in one way or another. One of the most prominent studies on this issue is JAMA’s 2016 comparison of physician and computer diagnostic accuracy. Unsurprisingly, the research evidences how a doctor’s diagnosis is far superior to that of an online symptom checker.

Despite these findings, plenty of people still choose to type their symptoms into Google’s search bar. Is this because we’re all ignoring the blatant truth, or are we right to trust in the ever-evolving search engine? Here’s when to be cautious of Dr Google.

Why Google’s medic update matters

A year ago, Google rolled out its Medic update, which assessed the quality of health-related content. In an effort to crack down on misinformation and non-expert health advice, Google de-ranked plenty of websites that were once receiving high volumes of search traffic.

In particular, the update focused on Your Money Your Life (YMYL) pages, or in other words, pages that contain life-altering information. YMYL pages can refer to advice articles on how to treat a certain set of symptoms or an opinion piece on a topic like vaccinations that might sway a reader’s judgement and influence their future decisions.

The Google Medic update matters, as misinformation is becoming widespread online. Social platforms like Facebook have been scrutinised for their apparent inability to stop the plague of false information across their data streams. As well as inaccurate health content, Facebook has been held accountable for the spread of false facts regarding elections. Like Google, Facebook has a ranking system, where potentially harmful content will be de-ranked instead of removed from the system.

If Google’s Medic update — among other algorithm shifts — are rigorous enough, the internet should be a safer place for people to explore. However, since misinformation is so quick to spread to the everyday reader, it’s smart to be at least somewhat cautious of Dr Google.

How misinformation spreads to the everyday reader

Despite fancy ranking systems, misinformation still tends to spread like wildfire.

Two philosophers claim that misinformation is nothing new. We’re just noticing it more because it’s moved online, transforming into a digital form of Chinese whispers. At the root of it all, misinformation spreads so quickly because it travels through a chain of people who we trust. That’s why Facebook has become a breeding ground for misinformation — people are more likely to believe false information when it comes from their friends, families and community groups. We’re also more likely to share that information if someone we like does the same thing.

In terms of untrustworthy articles and false information on Google, the same thing happens. If one person links to a source and ultimately advocates it, more publications will follow suit. That’s why Google’s old tricks of basing its rankings on page popularity and the number of links to it just doesn’t work anymore.

Plenty of academic buffs have pulled the topic of online misinformation apart, even going as far as taking a look at its literal anatomy.

But the simple truth is, there isn’t much to pick apart. Online misinformation will often rise from a seed of truth. As Mike Wood, PhD, remembers, an article he wrote was misinterpreted and subsequent inaccurate information became increasingly popular online. Misinformation is easy to believe and pass on because it holds a certain degree of accuracy. Instead of being a random piece of junk news that’s clearly false, misinformation is dangerously plausible. Furthermore, it’s near impossible to put an entire stop to misinformation, as nobody wants to own up to getting it wrong. As Brian Southwell writes, ‘even as Americans tend to view misinformation as an important problem for society, most do not see themselves as being responsible for its spread and diffusion.’

That’s why no matter how good our online platforms get at policing misinformation, it will always be difficult to put our entire trust in outlets like Dr Google.

The Latest Figures for Dr Google

A fresh look at our dependency on Dr Google — conducted by scientific platform Kolabtree — shows that the online search bar stands as a firm favourite for symptom-checking. Although it sits below a qualified doctor (56.7%) on the list of sources people get their health information from, results at the top of Google are still good enough for 26.2% of people. In the same study, 43.2% admit to Googling their symptoms before making a doctor’s appointment.

So, when exactly should you be cautious about seeking advice from Dr Google? Funnily enough, it’s probably when there are symptoms involved in your query.

As a general rule, you can’t blindly trust Google’s top-spot content, so you should always revert to checking whether a qualified practitioner has written the article you’re reading. However, when it comes to online diagnosis, even an expertly authored piece of content isn’t sufficient. Why? Well, a doctor could check the same set of symptoms in two different patients and come up with opposing diagnoses. This is due to the impact patient history and personal health have on a diagnosis.

In terms of medical-related content, checking for information on generic prescription drugs or Googling how to treat a common bee sting is fine — making assumptions about serious health conditions is not.

If you’re browsing the internet for an answer to a simple question such as, ‘Do I need travel vaccinations to visit Thailand?’, you should look for the following indicators:

  • Is the content expertly written? You should check if the author of the page has relevant qualifications and accreditation to give such advice;
  • Is the website trustworthy and authoritative? Where possible, you should always seek information from a government website or official health organisation; and
  • Is the content biased? Try to keep an objective view of any content that you read, no matter who has shared the content with you or what brand the content might be sponsored by.

Remember, the next time you feel the need to reach for Dr Google for a diagnosis, book a doctor’s appointment instead. If you’re just popping online for a consultation, use our checklist to make sure that you’ve landed on a secure page, free from suspicious activity.

Ramya Sriram

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