White, R. W. & Horvitz, E. (2008). Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search. Microsoft Research.
The World Wide Web provides an abundant source of medical information. This information can assist people who are not healthcare professionals to better understand health and illness, and to provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms. However, 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. We use the term cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web. We performed a large-scale, longitudinal, log-based study of how people search for medical information online, supported by a survey of 515 individuals’ healthrelated search experiences. We focused on the extent to which common, likely innocuous symptoms can escalate into the review of content on serious, rare conditions that are linked to the common symptoms. Our results show that Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns. We show that escalation is associated with 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 versus to seek more reasonable explanations for ailments. We also demonstrate the persistence of post-session anxiety following escalations and the effect that such anxieties can have on interrupting user’s activities across multiple sessions. Our findings underscore the potential costs and challenges of cyberchondria and suggest actionable design implications that hold opportunity for improving the search and navigation experience for people turning to the Web to interpret common symptoms.
notes and quotes:
great table that breaks down symptom searched for and the likelihood of various causes to come up in search results. In the Health chapter, I write this up like this:
a search for “headache” is as likely to point to “caffeine withdrawal” as “brain tumour” as its cause. The annual incidence rate of brain tumours in the US, where this study was based (although it used the global web as its data pool) is one in ten thousand. And a search for “chest pain”? You’ll more likely discover you’re going to have a heart attack than either indigestion or heartburn.
Of the 515 people they surveyed, they found that the mean number of health related searches their participants performed every month was 10.22. They mostly search for info on symptoms, but almost half search for info on serious medical conditions. 41.7% search for medial diagnoses and 38.1% look for communities with similar conditions.
Most people in their study were pretty balanced about the web. They took what it offered with a grain of salt and didn’t put all their faith into it.
escalation of medical concerns 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
and a recommendation…
Search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern generated by the definitions of relevance and the ranking algorithms their engines use. They must be cognizant of the potential challenges of cyberchondria, and focus on serving medical search results that are reliable, complete, and timely, as well as topically relevant.