Searching for health on the web often leads to the most dire diagnoses

Microsoft released a study looking at the patterns of those who perform health-related searches on popular search engines.

To no one’s surprise, “self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.”

People only looked at the first few results for their keyword symptom searches, which often contained zebras like “ALS” or “brain tumor,” meaning they often started their research from a dire, more anxious, perspective.

I never discourage patients from researching their own conditions. However, the interpretation of the data is equally important, which is why discussing what you find on the Web with a physician is imperative.

topics: google, search engine

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  • Robin

    I took the time to read this and the linked PDF in its entirety. Interesting, to say the least, and the unique approach got a “huh” or two out of me.

    After sorting through the whole thing, and re-reading several parts of it to make sure I understood what they had done, I found one sentence that really said something worthwhile:

    “Search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern generated by the ranking algorithms their engines use.”

    I’d like to hear a response from Google on this. ;)

  • mudphudder

    Actually, this is a good point for anyone offering healthcare. I have actually made it a point to ask my patients if they have looked anything up on the internet. In particular if the patient is a little more on the educated side, which increases the probability of seeking out web-based information and also of understanding the more dire diagnoses/consequences of disease.

  • Robin

    mudphudder, I am a patient who uses the web, but I do know the difference between valid sources and those not so valid. Frankly, I have access to a medical school library plus all the digital media subscriptions. I can access most journals from home. I have had doctors who put me down for this. But the best doctors I have are the ones who encourage it and ask me to send them pertinent articles if they aren’t familiar with them. My very best doctor sends ME articles because he thinks patients should be vested in their own care. And I can count on him to be up on research. I don’t have to educate him.

    Kevin, in the above you quote “self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.” This comes from the article you linked which is about the study (PDF file). HOwever, the author of that article took “poetic license” with what he was reading. Only in one spot does the PDF talk about the aforementioned, and it is quoting a 1983 study. In the study, though, these same folks admit only 1-5% of the population has hyperchondria and goes on to say, “The Web is fertile ground for those with hypochondria to conduct detailed investigations into their perceived conditions.”

    In the study, they use the words “potential for” rather than saying it is a definite problem. And they say, “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”. Again, remember they were talking about 1-5% of the population.

    I find the article you linked misrepresents the study, and thus what you say above misrepresents it, too. It is more about methodology and less about self-diagnosis.


  • The Tropologist

    I think there are two important points here:

    1. Patients researching their own conditions is fine, and should be encouraged. What I think should be discouraged is patients making their own diagnoses.

    2. Google/Microsoft do not have the responsibility here, it is the lay media who try to interpret complex medical conditions and isolated trial findings without adequate knowledge or context are the real people to blame.

  • Anonymous

    This is a repost of what I wrote on the WSJ blog in response to the story:

    The other side of the story that should have been reported: How many patients are blown off by their doctors only to find on the Internet that what they are suffering is valid? This is definitely true in the case of people suffering withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants that are falsely blown off as a return of the illness and thus people are put back on meds that have dangerous side effects.

    I suggest the reporter visit the Paxil Progress Boards, which is run by an RN, and provided me a tapering schedule that enabled me to have a decent quality of life. If I had listened to my doctor, it would have been way too fast and there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been back on meds that have caused me horrific side effects.

    Anyway, it is reports like these that the doctors use to invalidate our suffering saying that you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.


  • Dr K

    If all you needed was google we wouldn’t need doctors. Med searches answer questions generically. We are individuals with specific medical needs. All med diagnoses leads to is more fragmentation of the healthcare system.

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