Are you a Cyberchondriac ? the dangers of the internet

Written by on November 26, 2008 in in the news with 0 Comments

Self diagnosis using search engines can lead to internet users concluding the worst about their ailments. So says some recent research from Microsoft. The researchers looked at health related web searches and also surveyed employees of Microsoft.

This study is thought to be the first systematic look at the anxiety of people doing web searches related to health care. A couple of the examples detailed starting with headache and chest pain and showed how one can easily end up reading about the worst possible but rare outcome. For example they found that the same number of search results linked a headache to a brain tumour as often to caffeine withdrawal. Of course brain cancer is very rare so it might be surprising that so many web pages are available linking a headache to cancer.

The researchers are investigating search engines that are able to detect medical queries and offer advice that does not automatically make users fear the worst.

From the New York Times: Microsoft Examines Causes of ‘Cyberchondria’

If that headache plaguing you this morning led you first to a Web search and then to the conclusion that you must have a brain tumor, you may instead be suffering from cyberchondria.

On Monday, Microsoft researchers published the results of a study of health-related Web searches on popular search engines as well as a survey of the company’s employees.

The study suggests that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.

You can find the paper from Microsoft here Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search.

The World Wide Web provides an abundant source of medical information. This information can assist people who are not healthcare professionals to better understand health and disease, and to provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms. However, the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure.

We use the term cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web. We performed a large-scale, longitudinal, log-based study of how people search for medical information online, supported by a large-scale survey of 515 individuals’ health-related search experiences. We focused on the extent to which common, likely innocuous symptoms can escalate into the review of content on serious, rare conditions that are linked to the common symptoms.

Our results show that Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns. We show that escalation is influenced by the amount and distribution of medical content viewed by users, the presence of escalatory terminology in pages visited, and a user’s predisposition to escalate versus to seek more reasonable explanations for ailments. We also demonstrate the persistence of post-session anxiety following escalations and the effect that such anxieties can have on interrupting user’s activities across multiple sessions.

Our findings underscore the potential costs and challenges of cyberchondria and suggest actionable design implications that hold opportunity for improving the search and navigation experience for people turning to the Web to interpret common symptoms.

What has your experience been when searching for information about rosacea ? Do you think having the resources of the internet available to you added to your distress ?

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About the Author

About the Author: David Pascoe started the Rosacea Support Group in October 1998. .

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