Epidemic 2.0: Cyberchondria
We've all been there - an ailment with no apparent cause has been bothering you, and now you're in front of the computer, researching unpronounceable diseases and worst case scenarios presented by online symptom checkers. Of course, you read all of the options before you start ruling anything out, and the medical websites are giving you choices that range from stress headache to brain aneurysm. Despite the statistical likelihood that it is just a headache, and all you need is a hot shower and a good night's sleep, it could be a brain aneurysm... right?
This so-termed "self-diagnosis" and resulting panic is increasingly common, and now Microsoft researchers have given it a name: Cyberchondria.
Cyberchondria is defined as "the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web," by Microsoft's Eric Horvitz and Ryen White. They feel that, while it is in human nature to expect the worst, part of the problem is that online symptom checkers are designed so that the entry of common and generally harmless symptoms can lead people to rare and serious conditions. Horvitz and White also refer to the "escalatory terminology" on these sites, and its ability to push easily upset Internet users right into the E.R.
After reading the Microsoft cyberchondria report, David Ramel of Computerworld.com decided to see if the top Google-rated symptom checkers could lead him to a specific diagnosis (which a health care professional had already given him). He hoped to find a site that asked relevant, straightforward questions, and provided accurate, likely options. The sites examined by Ramel, along with Dr. Laura Beaty of Atlanta, Dr. Andy Spooner of Cincinnati, and Dr. Viren Bavishi of Franklin, WI, were Web MD, Revolution Health, Mayo Clinic, About.com, and Wrong Diagnosis.
In summarizing the overall experience, they felt that there simply wasn't enough opportunity to provide symptom details, which would help to narrow down the list of possible diseases or conditions. In the case of Web MD, adding more symptoms even lengthened the list of conditions. "...I went from 16 to 21 [conditions] just by adding a few more symptoms. I thought that was kind of all over the map," reported Dr. Beaty.
For this reason of apparent generalization, a person with a normal headache could end up on the same site path as someone who really does have a serious neurological problem, and neither of them would be sure of the truth. To minimize the rampant cyberchondria such Internet sessions encourage, Horvitz and White suggest "actionable design implications that hold opportunity for improving the search and navigation experience for people turning to the Web to interpret common symptoms." In other words, experts say that online symptom checkers need a major design overhaul if they want to keep the trust of intelligent Internet users.
As for the doctors, they acknowledge the usefulness of medical sites as educational sources, but they do not recommend letting them replace a visit to your physician, who knows your health and family history. "Bottom line for me is, nothing beats the advice of a doctor," Dr. Bavishi confirmed. "We'd rather err on the side of you calling us to determine if the patient or the child needs to be seen." So the next time you find yourself wondering about your health, go ahead and do some research on popular medical sites, but please also make an appointment with your doctor before the cyberchondria sets in. A professional that can look at your body and listen to your exact symptoms is far more reliable than any online symptom checker.