Calling Doctor Google

As a former medical librarian I thought this editorial by a medical librarian in the BMJ was fascinating.

First this amazing information:

Within a year of its release Google Scholar has led more visitors to many biomedical journal websites than has PubMed (J Sack, personal communication, 2005).

… which certainly lends credence to the pro-tagging, anti- or indifferent-to-cataloging thinkers.

I was particularly interested to see the table from the BMJ’s web access stats, which lists Google as its number one referrer, by far, in November 2005 (345,756), and Google Scholar as its number two referrer (105,185). PubMed trailed significantly far behind — fourth place was PubMed Medline (14,522) and fifth place was PubMed Central (9,616). Of course, one shouldn’t read too much into this relatively raw access-data. A lot of factors must play into the numbers. Who are these searchers? Medical consumers typing in terms in google, hoping for consumer information? If they end up going to the BMJ, that’s probably more than most of them want to know, at least in an initial search. Or are they physicians realizing google is a shortcut to particular articles? Does this set of referrals include, for instance, academic-affiliated researchers? Many of them probably have access to their own institutional subscriptions to BMJ, and if requests are being routed through a local proxy then how is that reflected in these numbers? Still, anyway you slice it, it’s obvious that Google — or maybe it’s better to describe it as “general search” — is becoming significant for medical research. And Google Scholar is more successful than I’d realized.

And then this cropped up in the editorial, too:

In a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, a New York rheumatologist describes a scene at rounds where a professor asked the presenting fellow to explain how he arrived at his diagnosis.[4] Matter of factly, the reply came: “I entered the salient features into Google, and [the diagnosis] popped right up.” The attending doctor was taken aback by the Google diagnosis. “Are we physicians no longer needed? Is an observer who can accurately select the findings to be entered in a Google search all we need for a diagnosis to appear—as if by magic?”

Ten years ago librarians were all a-twitter about the fear that search engines (Yahoo! and Altavista were the big contendahs then) would displace librarians. Most librarians blustered it out: “Nothing can replace a librarian!” but there was definitely some anxiety in the ranks. Now physicians. Relax, docs. Librarians, doctors, and search engines, all will find their place in the brave new world of infinite search. And it’s important that consumers have access to as much information as possible to critically evaluate and assess all the other info streamed at us daily. For example, since the FDA has deemed it acceptable for drug companies to “inform” us about their wares via millions of dollars of direct-to-consumer advertising, consumers get barraged with info about commercial drugs provided by commercial for-profit entities. In that information environment, it’s vital for consumers to have consumer-directed diagnostic information to assess Big Pharma’s claims. Ultimately it will improve healthcare. What did you think all those consumer health awareness services were about if not, ultimately, this?