Study: Web diagnoses often lead to "cyberchondria"

December 12, 2008
Brandon Glenn
Brandon Glenn

Have you recently visited with a patient suffering from "cyberchondria"?

Have you recently visited with a patient suffering from “cyberchondria”?

It’ll come as no surprise to most doctors that patients who use the web to diagnose their conditions often develop unfounded fears that their symptoms stem from illnesses much more serious than what actually ails them, according to a study of health-related web searches by Microsoft researchers. 

“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,” according to the study, “Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Research.” Microsoft performed the study as part of an effort to improve its web search service.

In addition to unjustified anxiety, cyberchondria can cause patients to invest too much time into dealing with an illness and spend money on expensive and unnecessary health- care services, the study says.  For example, nearly a quarter of respondents to a survey that accompanied the study said that web content had at least once “put them over the threshold” for scheduling an appointment with a health-care provider, when they otherwise wouldn’t have done so.

The study suggests a new role for physicians to play in an era in which patients are increasingly turning to the web for answers about their health, says Eric Horvitz, MD, PhD, one of the study’s two authors.

“Physicians are not only becoming information managers themselves, but they’re also becoming reference librarians to guide their patients to the most appropriate resources,” he says.

Horvitz advises doctors to actively review and recommend health information sites to patients. Doctors should also warn web-using patients that they’re likely to encounter some “scary stuff,” but it’s unlikely that their own conditions are as grave as some websites and web searches might lead them to believe, he says.

The researchers identify a number of potential causes of cyberchondria. Chief among them is simply the volume of search results. For example, the number of search results that linked headaches to brain tumors equaled the number that linked headaches to caffeine withdrawal

Further, the presentation of results can sometimes fool web-searching patients. The survey showed that “three in four respondents have at least once interpreted the ranking [emphasis in the original study] of web search results as indicating the likelihood [emphasis in the original study] of the illnesses, with more likely diseases appearing higher up on the results page,” the study says.

So what can be done about the problem of cyberchondria? Microsoft prescribes better-designed search engines. Architects of search engines “must be cognizant of the potential problems caused by cyberchondria, and focused on serving medical search results that are reliable, complete, and timely, as well as topically relevant,” the study says.