Are You Googling Yourself Sick?

Researchers warn surfers not to think the worse when investigating ailments.
Posted November 30, 2008

Judy Mottl

Googling for what ails you? You might want to think again.

According to a new study, human nature prevails when it comes to searching for health-related information, with users often jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst.

Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz said their investigation of online medical search behavior found that it can often lead to "cyberchondria," an eight-year-old term describing the online equivalent of hypochondria, a psychological ailment in which people view minor medical symptoms as evidence of a serious illness.

"We use the term 'cyberchondria' to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptoms based on the review of search results," the researchers wrote. "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."

With the Internet already a daily tool used at home and at work, both on PCs and on mobile smartphone devices, it's not surprising that consumers are relying on it for their even most private research needs. A recent study revealed over 50 percent of mobile workers surveyed said it would be easier to go without a car for a week than relinquish Internet access.

In their report, White and Horvitz said the Web is "fertile ground" for those suffering from hypochondria, since it enables surfers to conduct detailed investigations into perceived conditions.

As a result, hypochondria-prone users' concerns about common health symptoms -- think "headache" and "heartburn" -- quickly ramp up to Web queries on serious illnesses -- think "brain tumor" and "heart attack".

"We found that escalation is potentially related to the amount and distribution of medical content viewed by users, the presence of escalatory terminology in pages visited and a user’s predisposition to escalate or seek more reasonable explanations for ailments," White and Eric Horvitz wrote.

According to the report, information gleamed in healthcare-related searches can also affect a person's decision on when to reach out to a medical expert, as well as a person's approach to maintaining health.

"Information drawn from the Web can influence how people reflect and make decisions about their health and wellbeing, including the attention they seek from healthcare professionals, and behaviors with regard to diet, exercise, and preventative, proactive health activities," the authors wrote.

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Tags: search, Microsoft, IT, research

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