Dr. Google – Or at Least a WebMD Replacement

We’ve all heard the talk about Dr. Google and how it’s the first place many of us reach out to with are various medical issues. Well, Dr. Google (my term, not there’s) is stepping up their game even more with their most recent announcement. Here’s an excerpt of the changes to a Google search for symptoms:

So starting in the coming days, when you ask Google about symptoms like “headache on one side,” we’ll show you a list of related conditions (“headache,” “migraine,” “tension headache,” “cluster headache,” “sinusitis,” and “common cold”). For individual symptoms like “headache,” we’ll also give you an overview description along with information on self-treatment options and what might warrant a doctor’s visit. By doing this, our goal is to help you to navigate and explore health conditions related to your symptoms, and quickly get to the point where you can do more in-depth research on the web or talk to a health professional.

Lest you think this is just Google, they have worked with some actual doctors on their results:

We worked with a team of medical doctors to carefully review the individual symptom information, and experts at Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic evaluated related conditions for a representative sample of searches to help improve the lists we show.

Although, Google did follow that up with a big disclaimer that they’re just a source of information and that it shouldn’t replace consulting a doctor for medical advice. Yeah, Google’s not quite ready to take on the liability of actually giving medical advice. So, take their results with that grain of salt.
Dr. Google
Of course, Google doesn’t have to worry about it. Millions already take their health-related search results with a grain of salt. I’d really say that this update is an algorithm tweak and an interface tweak more than it being a real change to the way Google does things.

If I’m WebMD, I’d be a bit worried by these tweaks by Google. Doesn’t what Google’s doing sound a lot like WebMD? However, I’m sure Google sends a ton of traffic WebMD’s way, so they won’t likely complain about things. At least not for now.

I’m sure most doctors’ reaction to this is likely covered by this coffee cup:
Dr Google - Google Search Replacement for Medical Degree
In response to this mug, e-Patient Dave provides an alternate and important perspective on the balance between an informed patient versus an arrogant, disrespectful patient. Like most things in life, it’s what you do with the information or tool that matters. It can be used for good or bad depending on how you approach it.

All of this said, the patient is becoming more empowered every day. Consumer driven healthcare is here to stay and Dr. Google is going to be one important tool in that toolbox for many patients.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of HealthcareScene.com, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference, EXPO.health, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.


  • John! THANK YOU for pointing to that Google Mug post – one of the most-commented things ever on the blog of the Society for Participatory Medicine, including some *epic* stories where informed patients brought invaluable added info to their own case … sometimes against the wishes of benighted practitioners.

    I have so many thoughts on this issue, and the USA Today article.

    First, didn’t this Google-Mayo “info box” thing start a year or two back?? –Ah, how fitting: googling tells me yes, Google to reshape how it provides health information, Mayo Clinic joins as a partner … Feb 2015, with this lede: “Google will today start presenting healthcare information in a new way …”

    Second, has anyone disclosed whether there’s any money changing hands here? I’m not necessarily opposed to it but we info-consumers who are being served a curated dish sure deserve full disclosure, as in all medical money / influence topics, eh.

    Third, is there a way for a googling e-patient to report “Sorry, you’re wrong,” or missing information, the way there is in Google Maps and other Google products? If not, it’s a dead-on blindered #fail from the start … “fail” as in “I’m the authority, don’t tell me I’m wrong,” which is deadly.

    Fourth, the USA Today piece says Google will never be as trustworthy as docs – I call na apples/oranges violation. 🙂 People don’t receive a wrong prescription from Google, or undergo inappropriate or unnecessary surgery from Google … and MOST people assume a doc *is* correct, and only a fool would assume Google is sure to be right. (Of course yes, some people are fools.)

    btw, I sure wish USA Today had cited the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine.

    So glad you wrote about this. So meaty. I must blog about it – maybe I just drafted it…

  • Oops, just realized I didn’t link to today’s USA Today article about this. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/06/20/google-health-symptom-medical-conditions/86061086/

    And I forgot to mention – I wonder if the Belgian government will now take down its notorious “Don’t google it” Google Ads campaign! dave.pt/belgiangoogle2 dave.pt/belgiangoogle3 dave.pt/belgiangoogle4

    Ah, ye who seek certainty – good luck with that. We must search together, diagnosis together, stay together. Did I mention The Half-Life of Facts? http://lmgtfy.com/?q=half-life+of+a+medical+education

  • There is a lesson here for public health and medical researchers. Are you investigating how weather affects migraine headaches? How chemicals in water affect autism rates? I believe we are about to enter a golden age of disease research. Many of the biggest developments will come from the analysis of big data, not from traditional experiments that survey a relatively small number of people.

  • While the tweak from Google is meant to provide better information to the searching population (and additional revenues in the near future to Google and its partners), people would have still searched Google even otherwise. Just that the information is now more structured and maybe makes more sense, faster. One of the side effects from the addition by Google could be that the links coming up in the search will be accessed less.

  • Some great questions e-Patient Dave. The question of financial relationship is very interesting. Those organizations don’t do much for free, so we can assume that Google is paying them for their work.

    I did read that Google will ask the patient if the information they received in the search results was “helpful.” Not sure that response is that valuable, but they are trying to listen to the patient like you mentioned.

    We are entering a great new world of disease research. Things that weren’t even possible to consider before.

    Definitely just a tweak from Google.

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