Whether it's a headache, a rash or cough you can't shift, many turn to "Dr Google" when symptoms strike.
With an array of information at our fingertips, experts have long warned harmless ailments could mistakenly be flagged as something serious, triggering a rise in health anxiety.
Despite the critics, Google has now created a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to reportedly identify 288 skin conditions – from acne to cancer.
The tool is said to have been "trained" for more than three years, with Google scientists exposing it to millions of images of dermatological conditions, "curated" concerns and healthy skin.
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In May 2020, a "landmark study" published in the journal Nature Medicine revealed the tool was "non-inferior" to six dermatologists and even "superior" to 12 other medical professionals.
The tool – which Google hopes to pilot later in 2021 – is not intended to replace medical appointments, but rather give users more information about their skin complaint.
Almost 10 billion Google searches related to skin, nail or hair issues are said to be carried out every year.
Worldwide, 1.9 billion people – 24% of the global population – endure skin symptoms specifically, "but there's a shortage of specialists", according to Dr Peggy Bui and Dr Yuan Liu, from Google.
Many turn to the search engine for information, but "it can be difficult to describe what you're seeing on your skin through words alone".
To combat this, people will be able to upload three images of their complaint, taken via their phone's camera, to the AI tool. They will then be asked about their symptom, skin type and overall health.
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Based on this information, the AI model will "draw from its knowledge of 288 conditions to give you a list of possible matching conditions that you can then research further".
Users will also be provided with dermatologist-reviewed information and similar images, for their reference.
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As well as the Nature study, more recent research – published in the journal JAMA Dermatology – suggests the AI tool "improved diagnoses" made by GPs or nurses in one in every eight to 10 cases – "indicating potential for improving the quality of dermatologic care".
Writing on Google's blog, Dr Bui and Dr Liu stressed: "The tool is not intended to provide a diagnosis nor be a substitute for medical advice, as many conditions require clinician review, in-person examination or additional testing, like a biopsy.
"Rather we hope it gives you access to authoritative information so you can make a more informed decision about your next step."
The tool "recently passed clinical validation" and has been CE marked as a Class I medical device in the EU. People in Europe will therefore be able to access the tool when it is piloted.
"In the coming months, we plan to build on this work so more people can use this tool to answer questions about common skin issues," added Dr Bui and Dr Liu.
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