Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Search Engines Can Make You Sick

In the latest example of information overload, a new study suggests that surfing the Web can cause "cyberchondria," needlessly escalating medical concerns and causing anxiety leading to physical harm.

Sponsored by Microsoft, researchers found that online seekers of medical information often attribute innocuous symptoms to serious diseases, which are the unlikely causes, as a result of web sites ranking diseases by the clicks of worried users rather than likelihood of relevance, as a doctor would in making a diagnosis.

"On the Web, larger amounts of indexed content about serious disorders can make these disorders more available to search engines as well as people who browse content. Similar or larger amounts of content may be devoted to rare yet serious illnesses compared to content on more common explanations for symptoms.

"For example, headaches are far more often caused by caffeine withdrawal than by cerebral hemorrhage or brain tumors, but there is a great deal more written about headaches and the link to serious, albeit rare diseases."

Add this to the well-established human tendency to exaggerate the possibility of rare outcomes, and online seekers of medical information can work themselves into a lather over very little.

To prevent such cyberchondria, the researchers suggest developing more ways to detect whether search engine users are practicing self-diagnosis and, if so, ranking possible causes more realistically.

Meanwhile, it might be well to recall the folk wisdom: "He who treats himself has a fool for a doctor."

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