Beware of Medical Info on the Web

BY JAMES S. BURKHARDT, D.O.

When I was a medical student and learning about diseases and disorders, every time I read about medical conditions I was convinced that I had contracted that malady.  No matter that Leishmaniasis occurs due to the bite of sandflies native to Africa and the Middle East.  I was certain I had it. This type of self diagnosis is very common when I was a student, but much less common as I grew more knowledgeable about medicine.  This is a form of hypochondriasis.  Hypochondria is an “abnormal concern about one’s health, with the false belief of suffering from some disease, despite medical reassurance to the contrary,” according to Taber’s Medical Dictionary. 

I see concerns like this from folks quite regularly in my office.  These people are what I like to call “the worried well” and often suffer with good health.

The availability of information from sources on the internet has made finding out about almost any topic very easy.  And most of the time the information is accurate.  But what is needed is context, and being discerning about what is likely and not likely.  If, for example, I hear hoof beats outside my window, I would expect to see horses and not zebras.  In medical parlance, zebras are rare and unusual disorders. So those muscle twitches you might have areprobably nota sign that you have ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”).  But if you’re using search engines to diagnose what ails you, there’s a chance you’ll come to that conclusion. 

In a new paper, Microsoft investigates cyberchondria:  “. . . the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.” 

Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz studied a 40-million page sample of search results (from Live Search) and surveyed 500 Microsoft employees about how they search for health information.  They found that health search on the web sometimes makes our problems worse, in the form of heightened anxiety that can disrupt other aspects of normal, daily life.  In other words, the information we learn from search engines often adds stress to whatever our current health problem might be. 

“. . .the unreliability of Web sources and the content of Web search engine result pages contributed to the heightened anxiety of around three in ten survey respondents.

The responses show that search engine result pages, the contents of the pages visited directly from the result pages, and pages visited thereafter, may all contribute to health-related anxiety to different extents.”

One problem, according to the paper, is that web searches for common symptoms sometimes lead to information about serious, rare illnesses. A search for ”headache” might lead to information about tension, but could also lead to information about brain tumors, which are extremely rare.  A search for “chest pain” can lead to information about heartburn or heart attacks. 

So if you have a complaint or concern, you can certainly find good information on the Web. But be advised that you want to make sure that you react appropriately to avoid “cyberchondria.”

If you have any concerns about health matters, your family doctor should be your first resource.