What is the first thing you would do when you fall ill, particularly when you have something other than cold or flu?
A. See a doctor
B. Say “hey Google” to your smartphone
No doubt B would be a popular choice! Now with a phone, we can obtain information of any kind. With just a few clicks or taps you will have very detailed information for all sorts of diseases, symptoms, drugs and so on. Problem is in the vast search results, there also exists a large amount of irrelevant or even contradictory health information. What can we trust, and how should we filter out disinformation and make proper use of the right facts?
Sources of online medical information are mixed, they may come from reputable health institutions, or they may come from amateur groups, or even blogs of personal experience. In other words, not all of them are credible or validated. Besides, some of them are written for professionals, which could be a challenge for the general public to digest or even comprehend, while others could be biased or misleading.
It must be emphasized that medical information is not a restaurant guide. While going to the wrong restaurant only ends up with a meal spoiled, taking the wrong medical information is a much more serious matter. You could be led to worry about the wrong thing, but worse, you may be delayed in seeking medical attention or taking inappropriate treatments.
Another critical shortcoming about medical information from the internet is that it is one-way. Many people seek advice online because they developed certain symptoms and wanted to know more. However, one symptom may be related to many different diseases, and out of the huge number of search results, a layman often doesn’t have the expertise to arrive at the correct diagnosis from the many possibilities. To take a simple example, a symptom as common as cough could be indicative of influenza, but it could also be a symptom of asthma, lung cancer, COVID-19 and many more.
Because people are used to inquire online, some renowned international medical organisations have worked along this direction to develop a solution. The purpose is to provide trustworthy information and recommendations that better suit individual situation by introducing AI-empowered interaction. When asked about “cough,” the programme will ask follow up questions to narrow down the possibilities and give a more precise recommendation. Some insurance companies have adopted such solution as a value-added service for their customers and made it accessible via their mobile app.
Finally, it must be mentioned these information is for reference only. If one is sick, you will still need to see a doctor.