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Doctors in doubt about a patient's ailment could use Google to help them reach a diagnosis, researchers said today.

Two Australian doctors have found that entering the symptoms of a tricky case into the internet search engine often results in accurately diagnosing the illness.

They put Google to the test by entering the symptoms of 26 difficult cases recorded in the New England Journal of Medicine into the search engine to see how accurate an aid to diagnosis it was. And in 58% of cases using the search engine led to the correct diagnosis.

Hangwi Tang and Jennifer Hwee Kwoon Ng, both doctors at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, entered three to five words from the case records into Google then selected what seemed to be the most likely diagnosis from the first 30 search results.

They said doctors would get much better results than patients, who may not be as capable of accurately describing their symptoms or evaluating which search results were most reliable. The doctors concluded that: "In difficult diagnostic cases, it is often useful. Web-based search engines such as Google are becoming the latest tools in clinical medicine, and doctors in training need to become proficient in their use."

The study, published by the British Medical Journal online, suggests that Google is likely to provide the correct diagnosis in conditions with unique symptoms, but is less effective at identifying complex diseases with non-specific symptoms or rare diseases with common symptoms.

The conditions correctly diagnosed by Google included Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the hormonal disorder Cushing's syndrome, acute chest syndrome - a complication of sickle cell disease - and the auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare condition that can affect the blood vessels, the lungs, nerves, and other parts of the body.

But the idea of searching for a diagnosis on the web was met with scepticism from doctors' organisations and patient groups.

Professor Mayur Lakhani, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "The internet is in no way a replacement for doctors. Their clinical judgment and expertise will always be necessary to make sense of the information."

Dr Rodney Burnham, registrar of the Royal College of Physicians, said doctors would need to take care to assess whether the patient had provided them with the correct symptoms before carrying out a search, and gauge the reliability of the websites offering diagnoses.

"Any assistance in making a diagnosis is welcome, but it does have to come with a health warning. If Google brings up the correct diagnosis in 58% of cases that means in quite a lot of cases it will bring up the incorrect diagnosis," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Patients Association said it would be "concerned" if doctors were using websites to diagnose people because many contained dubious information.

"What would happen if they gave the patient the wrong information? There are lots of good sites out there, but we also know that there are many that are not credible," she said.

gez. That shows you how much people depend on the internet these days.
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