Scientists at Microsoft have discovered something pretty amazing, according to The New York Times. They have demonstrated that by analyzing huge samples of search engine queries, they may be able to identify certain internet users with pancreatic cancer — before they receive a diagnosis.
The study about the analysis was published earlier this week in The Journal of Oncology Practice by Dr. Eric Horvitz and Dr. Ryen White, Microsoft researchers, and John Paparrizos, a Columbia graduate student.
“We asked ourselves, ‘If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something’s going on?’” Dr. Horvitz said. The scientist hope that their research could contribute towards to the early detection of cancer.
First, the researchers looked at searches on Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, indicating that a person has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They then worked backward to look at earlier searches from the same user, some of which they believe can be early warning flags.
The study suggests that early enough screening can increase the five-year survival rate of patients from 5 to 7% — up from just 3%.
The individuals conducting the searches that were analyzed but the researchers were anonymized, meaning that they didn’t carry any identifying markers, and they could not be contacted.
The next step is to figure out how to apply this knowledge. Healthcare executives expect services like telemedicine to transform the U.S. healthcare system in the next 10 years, and analytical tools like search engine-based early detection could have a big impact on the emerging field. With 87% of companies working in the cloud, a shift to virtual treatment, predictions, and diagnoses in the medical sector won’t be surprising.
“I think the mainstream medical literature has been resistant to these kinds of studies and this kind of data,” Dr. Horvitz said. “We’re hoping that this stimulates quite a bit of interesting conversation.”
The researchers declined to make specific suggestions as to how they will proceed with their findings, but Dr. White is now the chief officer of health intelligence at the brand new Health and Wellness division at Microsoft, suggesting that the corporation and tech giant will only become more involved in the fast-growing telehealth field.