In a really interesting study a team of Australian doctors went to the Internet to test the effectiveness and accuracy of the search engine Google when it was presented with a number of symptoms.
The doctors based at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane 'Googled' the symptoms of 26 cases for a study and in 15 cases, the web search came up with the right diagnosis.
The researchers say Google can be a "useful aid", and while doctors carry a huge amount of medical information in their heads, the search engine may offer further help in an unusual case.
It is estimated that an average doctor needs to carry two million facts in his/her memory to assist in diagnosing illnesses.
Google is the most popular search engine on the web, and offers access to more than three billion medical articles; searching for health information on the web is one of the most common uses.
In each of the 26 cases hard-to-diagnose cases which had been published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the researchers selected three to five search terms from each case and did a Google search without knowing the correct diagnoses.
They then recorded the three diagnoses that were ranked most prominently and selected the one which seemed most relevant to the signs and then compared the results with the correct diagnoses as published in the journal.
They found that Google found the correct diagnosis in just over half of the cases and among these were Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the hormonal condition Cushing's syndrome and the auto-immune disorder Churg-Strauss syndrome.
The team was led by Dr. Hangwi Tang, a respiratory and sleep physician, who says Google could be a "useful aid" in diagnosing conditions with unique symptoms and signs that can easily be used as search terms.
But Dr. Tang also says a successful search needed a "human expert" user, and therefore patients would have less success trying to diagnose themselves on the internet.
The researchers say that computers connected to the internet are now common in outpatient clinics and hospital wards and information on even the rarest medical syndromes can now be found and digested within a matter of minutes.
The researchers believe that as medical information is expanding at a speed with which doctors will never be able to keep up, worldwide 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.
Other experts warn however against the internet becoming a replacement for doctors and say their clinical judgement and expertise will always be necessary to make sense of the information.
Google, say the team, is easy to use, useful and an excellent aid in finding the correct diagnoses for conditions with unique symptoms and signs.
They also add that using Google in this way was only considered reliable for health care professionals with good medical knowledge.
The study is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).