As you may know, Google is the preferred search engine for finding online health information among both health professionals and consumers. At least in the U.S., Google has become the de facto search engine for most search activity.

But how accurate (and helpful) is the information contained in Google’s health search results? A recent study decided to put Google to the test.

Two British doctors took 26 complex patient case histories and tried to use Google to diagnose the causes (Source: Tang, H. British Medical Journal. 11/10/06. findings? Google was right almost 60% of the time. The researchers concluded that “ difficult diagnostic cases, it is often useful to ‘google’ for a diagnosis.”

But there is a catch: for each case, the doctors carefully selected the most appropriate search terms to start with and they used their expertise to select from among the results. To this, they state “patients doing a Google search may find the search less efficient and be less likely to reach the correct diagnosis.”

As a health professional, the implications include:

Google may be considered a useful tool for you and your medical staff, as long as medical expertise is applied upfront to the search terms and as a screen to help choose among the search results. The use of Google in conjunction with your other tools, e.g., PubMed, provides another source of potentially relevant, quick and current information and keeps you abreast of what your patients are experiencing online.

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Patients can also reap benefits from using Google to research their condition, but will need guidance from you as to the appropriate search terms and how to select from among the search resultsTo help your patients with online research, you can:

Document the specific condition and treatment options that apply to each patient, so they know the right terms to use online. You can literally write out the terms and give the patient relevant handouts to take home. You’ll save your patients a ton of time and frustration by narrowing their search.

Guide patients to the highest quality online health sites so they can better sift through the search listings that result from any one health term search. The hallmarks of quality health sites? Among others, the site should:

  • Have qualified medical/health experts write balanced, fact-based articles
  • Blind peer-review all articles prior to publication
  • Clearly distinguish peer-reviewed health content from advertising and from content written by sponsors
  • Publish dates and sources on their medical content

Contrary to what some medical “experts” say, you cannot use a site’s domain name extension to determine the trustworthiness of its content. You can find high quality (and not-so-good quality) content on .com sites but also on .org, .edu and .gov sites. Judge instead based on the three quality criteria above.

Review and clarify what your patients find online. Patients, especially those with chronic conditions like back pain, should be applauded for trying to learn all they can about their condition. There’s a lot of bad info out there that can create confusion and even harm. Understand what they are reading and help them sort out the good from the bad.

Additional resources: philosophy

HON Code of Conduct (HONcode) for medical and health Web sites