Why physicians should get to know Google

It's not just patients who turn to Google or other search engines to research medical information. According to Google, 86 percent of doctors say they now regularly use the Internet on the job. Of that group, the majority start at Google, which they use as a springboard to look for general information about diseases and drugs, writes pediatrician Dr. Rahul K. Parikh in a special piece for the Los Angeles Times.

"Having the Internet at my fingertips makes me a better doctor," he writes, "though I'll admit that sometimes it feels a bit like cheating on an exam." He provides the example of looking up "retinitis pigmentosa" on the fly while gathering a patient's medical history to quickly determine that annual vision checks would suffice for the patient.

When it comes to using the Internet to aid in diagnosis, however, quick, accurate answers may be harder to come by. In a 2006 study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, researchers had physicians read the histories of 26 tough cases published in the New England Journal of Medicine and attempt to make a diagnosis by entering search terms into Google. The physicians in the study arrived at the right diagnosis 58 percent of the time; Parikh got none correct when trying the experiment on his own.

Part of the reason for the difficulty is that search engine algorithms, which are trade secrets, use various, often unknown determinants in ranking results. Thus, the top links may be simply the most popular or well cited and not necessarily the most recent or valid. And according to at least one study, most searchers don't go deeper than five pages to answer a question.

"The solution for doctors [and everyone], I suspect, is best answered by taking note of that lack of transparency [of ranking algorithms] and by making it a professional priority to become search savvy," Parikh writes.

For example, Google's "advanced search" feature can shrink the size of a needle-searcher's information haystack, as can using quotation marks for exact phrases and excluding words by putting a minus sign in front of them. And physicians can find even more tricks by, of course, searching "tips to using Google."

To learn more:
- see the full article in the Los Angeles Times