December 1, 2008

Web Health Info Creating ‘Cyberchondriacs’

The wealth of health information on the Web may be creating a generation of so-called cyberchondriacs who develop irrational health fears based on information they gathered on the net, said a team of researchers at Microsoft.

Researchers found that people who searched the Web would often assign themselves with the worst possible diagnosis.

Researchers surveyed 515 employees and analyzed data from popular Web search engines. Microsoft conducted the study in order to improve its own search engine.

About 250,000 users, or one-fourth of the study sample, engaged in a least one medical search during the study, researchers found.

Searching for "chest pain" or "muscle twitches" returned terrifying results with the same frequency as less serious ailments, even though the chances of having a heart attack or a fatal neurodegenerative condition is far lower than having simple indigestion or muscle strain, for example.

About a third of the 515 Microsoft employees who answered a survey on their medical search habits "escalated" their follow-up searches to explore serious, rarer illnesses.

"Our results show that Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns," said Eric Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher for Microsoft.

Researchers advise people to speak with a medical professional before reaching severe conclusions.

A spokeswoman from NHS Direct said health information on the Web was no substitute for expert advice.

"It is always a good idea to talk to a clinician who can point you in the right direction if you are concerned about your health.

"The Web can be a useful tool to find out more information about conditions, but it should not replace talking to an expert."

However, Henry Scowcroft, of Cancer Research UK, said: "Paradoxically, the problem in the UK is that many people are still unaware of the symptoms of cancer, and delay in seeing a doctor is one of the key reasons why this country's cancer survival figures lag behind the best in Europe.

"It's important to study this area further, but we must also remember that many people still have no access to the wealth of information online, and that health inequalities - including inequality of information access - are widening, not narrowing."


On the Net: