Health care in America may be ridiculously expensive but, hey, at least there's Doctor Google. Diagnosing yourself via Google is quick, free and often extremely alarming. I can't tell you how many times I've discovered that what I suspected might be a hangover is actually a very rare terminal illness. According to my various Google diagnoses I should be dead several times over by now, leading me to suspect that I may be a medical miracle.
I'm not the only one self-diagnosing via search. Around 72% of Americans look up health information online, according to a 2013 Pew study. And, last year, Google reported that about 1% of the site's searches relate to medical symptoms.
These numbers seem only set to grow; particularly as Google is now expanding its medical remit to help Americans with their mental health. The search engine has partnered with the US National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to offer a new tool which will allow users located in the US to test if they're clinically depressed.
Here's how it works: if you google "clinical depression" on a mobile device (the feature is currently only available on mobile) you'll be taken to what's called, in Google terminology, a 'Knowledge Graph.' This consists of an illustrated picture of a woman suffering from depression with a summary of information about the condition. You'll also be prompted to "check if you're clinically depressed." Clicking this takes you to something called a Patient Health Questionnaire-9, which consists of nine questions about your mental health.
Writing on Google's blog, Mary Gilibert, CEO of NAMI, notes that while one in five Americans experience clinical depression in their lifetime, only 50% of these people actually receive treatment. Further people with symptoms of depression "experience an average of a 6-8 year delay in getting treatment after the onset of symptoms." NAMI hopes "that by making this information available on Google, more people will become aware of depression and seek treatment."
Any initiative that raises awareness of mental health problem and breaks down the stigmas that stop people talking about and treating problems like depression is to be applauded. But is partnering with Google really going to get more people seeking treatment for depression? There are, after all, multiple quizzes on the internet that allow you to check if you're clinically depressed: this one may come at the very top of your search results, but it's hardly anything new.
As it turns out, however, being at the very top of your search results is something of a big deal. People tend to trust higher-ranked Google results more than they do lower-ranked results, studies have found and the prioritization of search results in Google can have a big impact on people's decisions.
Henry Brighton, an assistant professor of cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, recently conducted an experiment on how search engine results could manipulate people's views of the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
He found that if he skewed search results so they were mainly positive about the vaccine, people were more likely to have a positive opinion and vice versa. Brighton told NPR: "The big finding is the degree to which we can manipulate people's health care decisions, even when these issues are really, really important, and we can do that simply by changing the rankings of search results."
So, if more people searching for depression are taken immediately to a reputable diagnostic tool and nudged to see a doctor, then perhaps this will have a positive impact on the number of people seeking treatment.
But what about the fact that you're giving Google highly personal information? Well, worry not, Google has said that it recognizes the results of the quiz are "sensitive and private" and will not be storing the results. And, obviously, you can trust Google, a company which uses your personal data to make money from advertising, to always look out for the sanctity of your sensitive information.
At this point I should tell you that I suffer from acute Googledistrustitis. Symptoms include feeling extreme bouts of skepticism whenever Google, a monopoly which avoids paying its taxes, does anything that is supposedly in the public interest.
So, while, I have to grudgingly admit that this latest mental health feature is a positive thing, it does make me worry about just how embedded Google is in every facet of our lives. Particularly as Google's influence and footprint is growing exponentially.
The world's largest search engine recently announced a partnership with Walmart, the world's largest retailer. Starting next month, you will be able to buy Walmart products on Google Express, the company's online shopping portal, or by speaking to a smart Google Home device.
Further, Google will also have access to Walmart shoppers' purchase histories. Give it a few months and you won't need to fill out a quiz on Google to know if you're clinically depressed. Google will analyze the contents of your shopping basket, cross-reference that with your browsing history, diagnose you, order antidepressants for you and ship them with next day delivery.
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