HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Step Away from the Computer and Call Me in the AM

The New York Times reports on a new ailment plaguing many Americans, Cyberchondria.   Here are the symptoms:

Sickimages 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. The researchers said they had undertaken the study as part of an effort to add features to Microsoft’s search service that could make it more of an adviser and less of a blind information retrieval tool.

Although the term “cyberchondria” emerged in 2000 to refer to the practice of leaping to dire conclusions while researching health matters online, the Microsoft study is the first systematic look at the anxieties of people doing searches related to health care, Eric Horvitz said.  Mr. Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, said many people treated search engines as if they could answer questions like a human expert.  “People tend to look at just the first couple results,” Mr. Horvitz said.  “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘A.L.S.,’ that’s their launching point.” . . . .

They found that Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.  For example, there were just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is infinitesimally small.

The researchers said they had not intended their work to send the message that people should ignore symptoms. But their examination of search records indicated that researching particular symptoms often led quickly to anxiousness.They found that roughly 2 percent of all Web queries were health-related, and about 250,000 users, or about a quarter of the sample, engaged in a least one medical search during the study.   About a third of the subjects “escalated” their follow-up searches to explore serious illnesses, the researchers said. . . . .

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