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Search Habits Worsen Cyberchondriac Tendencies

Not quite pneumonia

Last week on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, a woman came into the hospital, complaining of abdominal discomfort, and claiming to have cancer after diagnosing her symptoms on the internet.

As the episode progresses, viewers discover the woman does not have cancer. She previously diagnosed herself with a staph infection — again, over the 'net — and ordered antibiotics to get rid of it. The drugs ultimately destroyed much of the good bacteria in her body, resulting in an inability to digest food properly.

Self-diagnosis gleaned from information found online is not uncommon.  Nearly 60% of adults use online resources to obtain health and wellness information, iCrossing found earlier this year. 2% of all web queries are health-related, according to a Microsoft study, and about one-third of those that conduct medical searches "escalated" their follow-up searches to explore serious illnesses.

The term "cyberchondria" was coined in 2000 to describe this practice, but a recent study by Microsoft is the first to systematically examine anxieties arising from such searches. Microsoft sought to learn how people use the web to search for health-related terms so it could add features to its search service — hoping to make it more of an adviser than a blind information retrieval tool, writes The New York Times.

Many people treat search engines as if they can answer questions like a human doctor, researchers found — and that's dangerous. Web search, employed as a diagnostic procedure, has the potential to inflate medical concerns and increase the anxieties of those with little or no medical training.

Search algorithms don't do anything to alleviate this problem: A person querying "headache," for example, can find just as many links to pages about brain tumors as those about caffeine withdrawal, a much more likely culprit.

Among the 250,000 users in the sample, one in four engaged in a least one medical search during the study. Some were more predisposed than others to escalate the cause of their symptoms rather than accept more reasonable explanations for them, but many were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of medical terminology in the pages they visited.

Users also tended to rely on web search page rankings as measures of relevance to their ailment. (That is, a result at the top of a search results page, peddling a serious illness, was more likely to be perceived as an authority.)


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