Searching the internet for more information on medical symptoms you’re suffering from may not be the best way to address a real health concern. But the data from those search queries has proven useful to a new study conducted by Microsoft researchers.
According to reports on the Microsoft News Center website as well as in The New York Times this week, researchers found that by analyzing what people search for on Bing, they could “identify people whose queries provided strong evidence that they had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.” Retroactively analyzing searches that were made over many months, researchers were able to identify patterns of queries most likely to signal the eventual diagnosis, Microsoft News reported.
Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz and Ryen White and former intern and Columbia University graduate student John Paparrizos led the study and published a paper in the Journal of Oncology Practice on Tuesday. The introduction reads:
People’s online activities can yield clues about their emerging health conditions. We performed an intensive study to explore the feasibility of using anonymized Web query logs to screen for the emergence of pancreatic adenocarcinoma. The methods used statistical analyses of large-scale anonymized search logs considering the symptom queries from millions of people, with the potential application of warning individual searchers about the value of seeking attention from health care professionals.
The anonymized search logs do not identify users.
“We asked ourselves, ‘If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something’s going on?’” Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft’s research lab in Redmond, Wash., said in The New York Times.
Both a computer scientist and a medical doctor by training, Horvitz told the Times he had been “exploring this area in part because of a phone conversation with a close friend who had described symptoms. Based on their conversation, Horvitz advised him to contact his doctor. He received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and died several months later.”
Pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer death and often has a poor prognosis, even when diagnosed early. It typically spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages.
The researchers believe that the analysis of search queries could have broad applications, and while Microsoft has no plans to develop products linked to the discovery, Microsoft News reports that “they hope the positive results will excite the broader medical community and generate discussion about how such a screening methodology might be used.”
“The goal is not to perform the diagnosis,” said White, chief technology officer for Microsoft Health. “The goal is to help those at highest risk to engage with medical professionals who can actually make the true diagnosis.”