Search engines like Google and Bing can be useful when it comes to patient diagnosis or predicting future flu pandemics. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Meet your new physician: Dr Google

OPINION: In theory, internet search engines like Google and Bing can make early diagnoses and may even save lives.

The word cancer is still surrounded by mystery and fear, and some patients still equate it with a death sentence.

The reality is fortunately very different and survival rates for most cancers have steadily improved.

Doctors are getting better at treating cancer, with the greatest achievements in changing lifestyles and earlier diagnosis and screening.

But can computers and in particular, search engines, also help?

Search engines can detect epidemics

Search engines like Google and Bing have proven helpful in recent years in extracting useful medical information.

Several years ago, Google claimed that the search engine could detect influenza epidemics early.

While Microsoft claim that they have been able to discover unexpected allergic reactions to drugs before physicians.

Patients describe symptoms online before diagnosis

New and interesting information is emerging for certain types of cancer, such as pancreatic cancer.

This disease has exceedingly poor survival rates, in which less than five per cent of patients survive beyond five years.

In one study, researchers scrolled through countless forums and blogs and discovered that people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had often first described their symptoms online.

Had these patients taken action when they first posted on the internet, their chance of survival might have been increased by five per cent.

This might not sound like much, but remember that this could effectively double their chance of survival, given that it was low to begin with.

This study was anonymous, but scientists are now considering further investigations where they could recall the details of individuals.

Google can help doctors diagnose patients

Many people will say that it is the job of a Doctor--not a search engine--to diagnose and treat patients.

And of course it is. But we need to remember that patients are different: Some go to the doctor early, while others do not go at all. And in some cases when they do go, it is clearly too late.

It may sound wrong to leave diagnostics to computers, but their ability to interpret human behaviour is improving as they become even more powerful.

We once thought that a computer could never beat a world chess champion, and yet it has.

And one Doctor solved a particularly complicated case with confusing symptoms by simply typing them into Google, which correctly diagnosed the patient with a rare rheumatic disease.

In short: computers can help medical diagnosis and often, in unexpected ways.


Read the Danish version of this article on

Translated by: Catherine Jex

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