Dr. Google: Can a Search Engine Diagnose Cancer?

Okay, to be fair, this blog entry should actually be about “Dr. Bing”. But who uses Bing?

Well, maybe I should be using Bing. Maybe we all should. Because Microsoft scientists reported today that they’ve been able to use Bing search engine queries to identify users who have pancreatic cancer.

The data seems to be statistically sound. As the article notes, “The researchers reported that they could identify from 5 to 15 percent of pancreatic cases with false positive rates of as low as one in 100,000.”

By using the wealth of data from users who actually have pancreatic cancer, Microsoft worked backwards to see what those people searched for in the months and years leading up to their diagnosis. They then applied that data to current users.

For example, an early symptom of pancreatic cancer is jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). So Bing might identify people who are searching for, “yellow eyes.” By itself, that information might not mean anything. But paired with other searches weeks or months later, it might trigger a red flag.

I think this is fascinating.Β It’s kind of like Big Brother watching over you, but in a good way. Imagine typing something into Bing (or Google) someday, and a red flag appears next to the results saying, “Your search results over the last year indicate that you should have your doctor check you for pancreatic cancer.” It would be scary, but an early diagnosis could also save your life.

I’d love to hear what doctors think about this. How would you respond if a patient told you that Bing had recommended they see a doctor?