It’s no secret that millions of patients use the Google search box as the starting point for their medical research. According to the latest study from Google and Manhattan Research, upward of 5% of Google’s global search traffic is directly related to health topics, with more than 50% of patients Googling before an appointment, and an incredible 84% of patients Googling after leaving an appointment. It’s no wonder that healthcare professionals have grown used to patient appointments beginning with the phrase – “Well Doctor, I Googled my symptoms and….”
In order to address this growing volume of health related queries, Google has been quietly adding to the power and accuracy of health-related searches, by updating their Knowledge Graph with medically vetted information for medical symptoms and conditions. This type of semantic search does more than simply bring back a list of page links. Instead, it provides highlighted information directly related to particular medical search terms. According to Knowledge Graph product manager Prem Ramaswami, Google worked with a “team of doctors” to “carefully compile, curate, and review this information”, adding: “All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.”
Semantic search, which powers these types of contextual answers – has become more prominent since Google’s ambitious Hummingbird algorithm debuted in 2013. The algorithm was a game changer, and sent a strong signal regarding where the future of search is heading, and has already had a significant impact on medically-related searches.
Since then, there has been no looking back for Google. By discerning user intent, semantic technology is now used to fine-tune search queries, extract results as direct answers to questions, personalize search results, preview and predict search queries, and help users find everything from the best local restaurant to the best explanation of a disease condition. If you take a moment and Google any widespread medical condition, you will immediately see a pop-up box appear in your search results with Google’s curated health information:
Given Google’s mission –“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” the company is continuing to leverage technology, manpower, and unprecedented search data to better understand user behavior.
Thus, the impact of semantic search is extending beyond just the search box, as Google has begun to apply semantic logic across all their products. Although not directly health-related, let me cite one personal example on how Google has employed semantic technology across its products. It happens to many of us when using eMail – forgetting to attach a file while sending mail to your colleague, or forget to attach resume while applying for a job. Once you spot it, or get a reminder from your colleague, you follow up with an apology mail and resend your mail with an attachment.
Typically, we face this kind of omission in our day to day activity around any number of tasks. However, if you use Gmail, it turns out that they are monitoring the text and context of your eMail for just this sort of common error. In this example, I included a message in the body text of an email I was trying to send a report to my friend. I mentioned that “attached is a report on digitalization of healthcare industry“, but forgot to actually attach the file. While hitting the send button, Gmail spotted it and let me know that I had not attached a file!
While some people might find this type of monitoring to be like “Big Brother”, for many others it will simply become an accepted feature of Google tools. As this semantic insight carries over into health-related issues, Google faces extremely sensitive issues surrounding privacy and consent. However, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Google could – with explicit consent from users – passively detect the onset of depression, anxiety, the flu, or any number of other conditions based on their online searches, eMails, and mobile use, and then alert the searcher and/or their family members to seek medical help.
Although there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the future of healthcare, it seems clear that “Dr. Google” will be playing an increasingly important role in the new patient-driven model. Who knows, someday she may even make house calls!