Dilbert’s Scott Adams: Will Google Replace Your Doctor?
Can a search engine accurately diagnose health problems? Can it someday replace your doctor? Questions like this aren’t new, but the discussion has gotten a bit louder in recent weeks.
Just a couple weeks ago, I reported on a Microsoft investigation of cyberchondria, when inaccurate medical information online makes actual health problems worse. On Friday, Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams shared a different point of view, telling blog readers how Google helped him find treatment for a speech defect known as Spasmodic Dysphonia.
More specifically, Adams was using Google Alerts to get information about the condition. Google notified him of an “obscure medical publication” that wrote about Spasmodic Dysphonia. He took the information to his own doctor, was referred from there to other doctors, and eventually had successful surgery to fix the voice defect.
“I never would have found that path without Google Alerts,” Adams writes.
But is his story representative of what typically happens when we use the Internet to search for medical information? The Microsoft paper released last month explained that using the Internet to diagnose health problems can make the problem worse than it really is:
“… the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure. We use the term cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.”
About 30% of people in the Microsoft study experience “heightened anxiety” because of what they learn online after doing a web search about medical conditions. But Adams says he’s used the Internet — “Dr. Google” as he calls it — “dozens of times to diagnose various minor medical problems, or to find out what things are dangerous or not.” And he poses some interesting questions about how well the Internet could diagnose non-emergency medical problems, both common and uncommon:
“With the uncommon problems, such as my spasmodic dysphonia, I have to wonder if Google (or WebMD, etc.) can do a better job than a doctor, if not now then maybe in the near future. If you could call up videos of people with identical symptoms, couldn’t you diagnose most of your own problems?
For example, are you any worse than your doctor at looking at High Definition pictures of a skin problem and comparing it to your own skin problem?
My guess is that the Internet could equal your doctor in diagnosing uncommon problems. WebMD for example asks a bunch of diagnostic questions and narrows down your symptoms just as a doctor would. That system will only improve over time.
Adams goes on to wonder about using an online database to handle prescriptions, with pharmacist oversight built-in. Something like that may already be included in government discussions of a national health database; I don’t follow the details enough to know for sure if it is or not.
Ultimately, it’s an interesting discussion. Adams’ concept of “Dr. Google” doesn’t seem too outlandish, but — to borrow a common medical analogy — four out of five doctors would probably disagree.