Doctors using Google to diagnose illnesses
The internet search engine Google has added another impressive string to its bow - by helping doctors diagnose illnesses, according to a new study.
Researchers found that almost six-in-10 difficult cases can be solved by using the world wide web as a diagnostic aid.
Doctors fight disease by carrying about two million facts in their heads but with medical knowledge expanding rapidly, even this may not be enough.
Misdiagnosis is still a common occurrence in the medical profession despite all the tools available such as the blood tests and state of the art scanning equipment.
Studies of autopsies have shown doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 per cent of the time.
So millions of patients are being treated for the wrong disease. And the more astonishing fact may be that the rate has not really changed since the 1930s.
So a team at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane identified 26 difficult diagnostic cases published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, including obscure conditions such as Cushing's syndrome and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
They selected three to five search terms from each case and did a Google search while blind to the correct diagnoses. Google gives users quick access to more than three billion medical articles.
The researchers then selected and recorded the three diagnoses that were ranked most prominently and appeared to fit the symptoms and signs, and compared the results with the correct diagnoses as published in the journal.
Google searches found the correct diagnosis in 15 (58 per cent) of cases. Respiratory and sleep physician Dr Hangwi Tang, who led the study, said: "Doctors adept at using the internet use Google to help them diagnose difficult cases.
"As described in the New England Journal of Medicine, a doctor astonished her colleagues including an eminent professor by correctly diagnosing IPEX (immunodeficiency, polyendocrinopathy, enteropathy, X linked) syndrome.
She admitted that the diagnosis 'popped right out' after she entered the salient features into Google."
The researchers, whose findings are published online by the British Medical Journal, suggest Google is likely to be a useful aid for conditions with unique symptoms and signs that can easily be used as search terms.
But they stress the efficiency of the search and the usefulness of the retrieved information depend on the searchers' knowledge base.
Dr Tang added: "Doctors and patients are increasing proficient with the internet and frequently use Google to search for medical information.
"Twenty five million people in the United Kingdom were estimated to have web access in 2001, and searching for health information was one of the most common uses of the web.
"Computers connected to the internet are now ubiquitous in outpatient clinics and hospital wards. Useful information on even the rarest medical syndromes can now be found and digested within a matter of minutes.
"Our study suggests that in difficult diagnostic cases, it is often useful to 'google for a diagnosis'. Web based search engines such as Google are becoming the latest tools in clinical medicine, and doctors in training need to become proficient in their use."