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Science and technology

Just in time for flu season, Google is experimenting with a feature that provides live video-chat advice to searchers looking for information on some medical conditions.

We've all probably convinced ourselves at least once through frantic online searching, that we – or our children – have some sort of undiagnosed chronic or catastrophic disease. (Ebola, we're looking at you.) With the video-chat option, Google may be able to alleviate some of those concerns by providing a real, live doctor to tamp down that panic level at those times when you're trying to figure out whether it's worth scheduling a doctor's appointment.

Google confirmed that it's running the program in a limited trial. "When you're searching for basic health information – from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning – our goal is provide you with the most helpful information available," Google said in a statement. "We're trying this new feature to see if it's useful to people."

During the trial period, Google is covering all the costs of the online consultations. A Reddit user first brought attention to the feature – part of Google's general advice service, Helpouts – in a post showing Google offering a video-chat option for his search on "knee pain." Not every medical query yields the option for a live chat, and in some cases searchers may be asked to set up an appointment rather than have immediate access to a medical professional.

Telehealth is an area of medicine that a lot of companies have been looking at, particularly to improve health care in rural parts of the country. But it carries its own regulatory headaches: In many cases, states don't allow for doctors to practice across state lines, which limits physicians' ability to use telemedicine technology.

Hayley Tsukyama

The Washington Post