Google Faculty Fellowship

Searching for Better Health

Many of us have been in a situation where we, our child, or close relatives have been sick. Put yourself in the shoes of a parent. Your daughter is sick with a high fever and pain. What do you do? Bring her to the hospital? Give her Tylenol? Do nothing? Nowadays, the first port of call for many people is to go online and find answers to inform our health decisions [1]. If the condition is serious (e.g., meningitis) then it is imperative to go to the hospital immediately. If instead it is a common cold, then going to the hospital is of no benefit and puts a further burden on the healthcare system [2, 3, 4, 5]. When you go online, often information is not reliable, generally misleading, too technical, sometimes leading to unfounded escalation of the situation [3, 6, 7, 8]: The problem is that correct and useful information is hard to find amongst the noise, spam, and irrelevant articles.

This project aims to help us understand how people use search engines to make health decisions. This un- derstanding is critical for deriving insights about how current search engine technologies can be improved to help people making better health decisions. A large portion of search engine users rely on search engines like Google to make health decisions; this is despite strong evidence that this often results in irrelevant and unreliable health information being retrieved [3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. Incorrect information may increase the severity of health conditions, ultimately increasing the cost of healthcare delivery and delay appropriate care [2]. This project will develop an understanding of which search strategies adopted by search engine users and which information sources best lead people to making good health decisions, including the access to health services, the undertake of treatments, etc.

My previous research has shown that often this problem arises not because search engines are unable to find relevant information given a person’s query, but because people struggle to issue a good query to describe their health condition or concern [9, 11]. It is thus vital to understand how people formulate their search strategy (queries and search interactions) when seeking health advice online so that new search technology can be devised to better assist people in these information seeking tasks. In addition, the quality of the health advice available online varies dramatically [6, 7]; this is both in terms of ease of understanding and correctness of the information. It is therefore important that people are given access to information they can easily digest and interpret and that is correct and reliable. This is because research has shown that exposing people to complex medical language may lead to erroneous self-diagnosis and even an irrational escalation of concerns regarding common symptoms (cyberchondria) [3, 8].

Chief Investigator(s): Guido Zuccon (UQ)

Administering Organisation: UQ

Value: $64,413 (AUD)

Founding round: 2018 (2018-2022)