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Lifestyle

Surprise! Why you shouldn’t trust Google for health advice

The pandemic has caused people to be more concerned about their health, and that’s a good thing. A steady diet and exercise will help most people keep healthy, but others may need a little more.

We know the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and it’s more important than ever they stay on top of their treatments. Prescription medication can be expensive, but there are some ways to save. Tap or click here to check out a site that can help you save up to 80% at the pharmacy.

While it’s good that people pay extra attention to their physical wellbeing, this can also cause problems when they search for advice. Googling the closest pizzeria is one thing, but searching for medical advice is another entirely. What role does a Big Tech company like Google have in regulating what comes up in its users’ queries, particularly when looking for healthcare information?

Bad results

A new study deals with the role of search engines when it comes to health advice. It was conducted by researchers from Germany’s Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg and Russia’s Ural Federal University.

Researchers analyzed searches related to symptoms and remedies that could do more harm than good when treating disease. The team pulled information from 1.5 billion questions submitted to the Yandex web browser.

Researchers sampled 30 frequent questions containing a disease and remedy pair like “Can hepatitis be cured with milk thistle?” They then used medical sources like Cochrane, PubMed and BioMed Explorer to assess the truth in each question/answer.

The queries were entered into Yandex and Google, and the top 10 search result snippets were analyzed. Snippets are the text you see below the clickable blue result links in your searches. They summarize the result to tell you how closely it may match your search.

They found that 44% of the Yandex snippets answered “yes” to a medical question with a false answer and 6% of the snippets read “no” correctly. Google did better, with 32% of the snippets confirming misbeliefs and 47% answered “no” correctly.

Google’s response

Fast Company reached out to Google regarding the study and a spokesperson responded that the methodology “is not an accurate way to measure the quality of search results, since it only looks at short snippets of text from the website, not who authored the website or what information it actually contained.”

Google also disagreed with the yes/no format of the study, saying the answers may be more complex. For example, one of the questions used by researchers for the study involved pregnant women drinking coffee and the answer they were looking for was “no.”

Meanwhile, The World Health Organization suggests that women ingest less caffeine while pregnant rather than give it up entirely.

Fast Company found that information from reputable health authorities such as the CDC, FDA, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic and news outlets like the New Yorker, Reuters, NPR and Wall Street Journal had the top search results when searching “covid vaccines are dangerous.” However, when searching a question like the ones found in the study above, the results were more mixed.

Don’t google it

Note: We’re not medical professionals, so we cannot answer your health questions either. That’s something you should discuss with your doctor. And remember that with telemedicine, you can have your doctor visits and many types of checkups right from home.

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