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What's Up Magazine

An Apple (or PC) a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Oct 23, 2011 10:54PM ● By Cate Reynolds

An increasingly popular form of internet information-seeking is the search though medical and health sites. A Harris poll first conducted in 1998 found that more than 50 million people had gone online to look for information on health. By 2010, Harris found that Web health information seekers numbered 175 million.

Harris described these researchers as cyberchondriacs. The term itself is not as pejorative as the word hypochondriac (an obsessive interest in symptoms), but merely refers to online quests about health. For the majority of those who search, med websites can be useful tools, providing insight into medical conditions, offering physician/hospital referrals, and linking patients to support groups. Doctors themselves often recommend online resources so that patients can find follow-up information. More than 50 percent of cyberchondriacs surveyed by Harris “searched the internet based on discussions with their doctors.” Moreover, most of those surveyed reported that they were “very satisfied” with their search results.

So how could cyberchondria not be a good thing?

It seems that an overdose of information can be harmful to your health. A 2008 study initiated by Ryen W. White, Ph.D., and Eric Horvitz, M.D., Ph.D., of Microsoft Research, concluded that “Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns” and create “post-session anxiety” that outweighs any actual benefit. As Web users seek to explain common symptoms, they may be presented with improbable diagnoses that fail to take into account statistical probability, gender, age, or health history. The symptom of “headache” may yield a diagnosis of “brain tumor,” the symptom of “dry cough” may yield a diagnosis of “lung cancer.”

The Microsoft survey found that, despite the fact that half of those surveyed reported that Web searching actually reduced their anxiety, many seekers (two in five) ended up feeling more stressed and anxious about their health. Ryen and Horvitz pointed out that such reactions may indicate a “predisposition to anxiety,” but should be of concern nonetheless.

Among the study’s insights was that “search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern” as a result of site design. Issues of relevance, bias, and probability should be handled more openly and clearly, so that Web seekers have access not only to information, but to information that is reliable, complete, and in their best interests.

-Sarah Hagerty