March 14, 2017

What’s up, Doc? | Dr Google and the future of Automated Health Services

The Problem

If you take a look at my Spotify playlists, you will see that my taste in music is pretty varied. I will happily listen to 1930s jazz standards and then Bring Me the Horizon’s post-hardcore “screamo” hits in four-hour blocks across the workday. The same applies to a lot of the TV that I watch – I can spend an hour watching an episode of Westworld and then the next 3 on Reddit making sure that all my theories about the show’s background characters are congruent with other watchers around the world; or I can collapse on the couch after making dinner and mindlessly watch the second half of My Kitchen Rules… which brings me to Pete Evans.

I find Pete Evans to be a bit of an enigma. On-screen, he is a tan-skinned, white-toothed, charming celebrity (by Australian standards anyway), full of charisma and a vast knowledge of food. He seems like a good bloke. Off-screen (or more like on the smaller, mobile screen), however, he appears like a dangerous, misinformed fanatical promoting some sort of anti-common-sense agenda to all his fans and followers.

Last August, he was widely criticised for his live Facebook Q&A where he told a participant that they could be harmfully removing calcium from their bones by consuming dairy products. In July 2016, the Cancer Council released a statement panning Pete’s views that sunscreen contained “poisonous chemicals” and that the combination of sunscreen and sunbathing for hours is a “recipe for disaster”.  Lastly, in 2015, his book Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies and Toddlers was axed before being released, after it was found to contain a bone broth recipe that could “cause permanent damage and possibly result in death” to those intended to drink it.

But for all of Pete’s seemingly whacky claims, he still has 1.5M Facebook fans, 145K Instagram followers, and 11K YouTube subscribers, and is just one local example of many self-proclaimed medical experts whose followers accept their views as facts, and whose health is at risk at a result of following misinformed advice.

The Solution

With four out of five Australians aged 18-34 seeking advice about health conditions online to avoid going to a medical professional, combined with the rising popularity of sources such as the aforementioned Pete Evans (as well as the now-discredited Andrew Wakefield, Belle Gibson, the oft-memed WebMD, and even Gwyneth Paltrow), Google has decided to take matters into its own hands and launched the ‘Dr Google’ service. According to Google Program Manager Isobel Solaqua, the new health feature will include an outline of the condition, symptoms, diagnosis, and prevalence according to age at the top of search results, and is made available by typing your symptoms and then selecting the “health conditions related to this search” tab. For some conditions, you’ll also see high-quality illustrations from licensed medical illustrators.

Google Medical Knowledge Graph

Currently, there are over 900 commonly-searched health conditions listed in the Dr Google service, with each health card fact-checked by a panel of at least 10 medical doctors from Google, Harvard Medical School, and/or the not-for-profit Mayo Clinic based in Minnesota. Each health card contains three tabs — “about”, “symptoms”, and “treatment”, while the user has the ability to download the information to a PDF copy (if you don’t know how to use a phone for some reason, and would prefer to bring a print-out copy to the GP), as well as view a “related conditions” tab.

The service, however, is not without its faults. For example, the listed symptoms can sometimes be very vague and shared across several ailments (I searched for “muscle pain, chills, nausea” and was told I might have the flu….or Yellow Fever), so users are encouraged by Google to consult face-to-face with a qualified GP if their symptoms are severe. Despite this, the important factor is that the information returned by Google is accurate, peer-reviewed, and always improving through user feedback in conjunction with the Knowledge Graph.

The Future

The introduction of Dr Google reaffirms the company’s commitment to improving the entire medical field through technology. Just this month, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, managed to successfully diagnose cancerous cells in tissue through the use of gigapixel microscopy images and artificial intelligence. In this breakthrough study, images sized 100,000 x 100,000 pixels were scanned by the same image recognition framework originally developed for Google’s driverless car program, with the task of detecting tumours as small as 100 x 100 pixels (or 1 part in 1,000,000). Currently, the success rate of the program sits at 92.4%, compared to 73.2% of its human pathologist counterparts.

Whether medical professionals like it or not, people are going to continue to search for health advice online (and probably follow it, too). The recent move by Google to provide users with reliable, curated information should be applauded, and it plays a valuable role in providing symptomatic users with information before they consult in-person with a health professional.


Now, to watch that re-run of My Kitchen Rules…

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