Searching Online for Diagnoses and Medication Side Effects

The power of Internet search has recently been harnessed to help diagnose obscure diseases and monitor adverse effects of medications used to treat disease.

The power of Internet search has recently been harnessed to help diagnose obscure diseases and monitor adverse effects of medications used to treat disease.

Sometimes the worst thing a patient can do when they suspect they have a health problem is to Google their symptoms. The query results have the potential to scare the patient and fuel feelings of hypochondria. What’s more, they can lead the patient in the complete wrong direction on their quest for self-diagnosis.

Imagine using Google to research a rare disease. As pointed out by an article in MIT Technology Review, general-interest search engines are not optimized for such a specific search, and “rare diseases by definition are unlikely to have a high profile on the web.” The Google PageRank algorithm, which measures the relative importance of a website based on which other sites link to it, is likely to produce less than stellar results for rare diseases that require specialty drugs.

A research project headed by Radu Dragusin of the Technical University of Denmark may prove more helpful to medical professionals in the diagnosis of rare diseases. Dragusin and his colleagues have launched FindZebra, a website for medical professionals that draws from specially selected databases on orphan conditions. Coupled with a conventional search engine interface, FindZebra produced search results that were significantly better than those retrieved from a Google search. “Our results indicate that a specialized search engine can improve the diagnostic quality without compromising the ease of use of the currently widely popular web search engines,” the researchers wrote. “The proposed evaluation approach can be valuable for future development and benchmarking.”

A separate study illustrates how the Internet can be a valuable resource for information about unreported prescription drug side effects and drug-drug interactions. As explained in an article in The New York Times, the FDA only issues warnings about medications after physicians report adverse reactions to the FDA—but a study found that information on potential reactions can be detected in Web searches, well before the FDA is aware of any problems. Although this sort of data mining has clear potential public health benefits, it is hard to say whether its results would be immediately available to the public. FindZebra, although currently accessible by the public, warns: “This is a research project to be used only by medical professionals.”

To see a video detailing how search data on medications can provide useful information and some of the privacy concerns raised by its use, watch this video from The New York Times.