It's good news for hypochondriacs, who can now add "cyberchondria" to their list of supposed ailments. Microsoft researchers coined the term after finding that thanks to a plethora of online medical information, more and more people think they are sick.
"Information can assist people who are not health-care professionals to better understand health and disease, and to provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms," said the researchers in a report. "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."
Researchers Ryen White and Eric Horitz 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.
The researchers 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.
The results showed that Web search engines such as WebMD and Microsoft's own MSN Health and Fitness have the potential to escalate innocuous symptoms into serious medical concerns. 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 heightened concern vs. a more reasonable explanations for ailments.
More troubling is that there is erroneous medical information online that may mislead users.
The Microsoft researchers cited other reports, noting that 70 percent of the studies they examined concluded the quality of health-related Web content is poor.
The studies showed that although eight in 10 American adults have searched for health-care information online, 75 percent refrain from checking key quality indicators such as the validity of the source and the creation date of medical information.
To reduce cyberchondria, the researchers recommend changes in improving search and navigation methods for health information seekers.
Although there are algorithmic challenges in "de-biasing" search results, the researchers said that "search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern generated by the ranking algorithms their engines use."
"They must be cognizant of the potential problems caused by cyberchondria, and focused on serving medical search results that are reliable, complete, and timely. Directly tackling cyberchondria is an opportunity to leverage readily available expertise in the information-retrieval and medical informatics communities."
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