Observations The Art of Risk Communication

Can search engine data predict pancreatic cancer?

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j3159 (Published 03 July 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3159
  1. Gerd Gigerenzer, director
  1. Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Harding Center for Risk Literacy, Berlin, Germany
  1. gigerenzer{at}mpib-berlin.mpg.de

Gerd Gigerenzer discusses how search engines use big data analytics to “diagnose” your state of health

Imagine this warning popping up on your search engine page: “Attention! There are signs that you might have pancreatic cancer. Please visit your doctor immediately.” Just as search engines use big data analytics to detect your book and music preferences, they may also “diagnose” your state of health.

Microsoft researchers have claimed that web search queries could predict pancreatic adenocarcinoma.1 A retrospective study of 6.4 million users of Microsoft’s search engine Bing identified first person searches suggestive of a recent diagnosis, such as “I was told I have pancreatic cancer, what to expect.” Then the researchers went back months before these queries were made and looked for earlier ones indicating symptoms or risk factors, such as blood clots and unexplained weight loss. They concluded …

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