Microsoft researching cyberchondria

One of the great advantages of the Internet is having access to so much information so easily, but as we know, it can also be a distinct disadvantage for the same reason. In the context of healthcare, I started reading a lot when my father was diagnosed with cancer to educate myself on treatments, insurance issues (including who makes money and how), and diet. When either Joelle or I visit the doctor we will also ask questions related to something or other that we’ve read about online. Some doctors are terrified by the Web, afraid of anyone challenging their authority while others (like our doctor) embrace this change and are happy to discuss what is written online.

Cyberchondria
starts with the best of intentions but then veers off course.

On Monday, Microsoft researchers published the results of a study of health-related Web searches on popular search engines as well as a survey of the company’s employees.

The study suggests that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.

The researchers said they had undertaken the study as part of an effort to add features to Microsoft’s search service that could make it more of an adviser and less of a blind information retrieval tool.

Although the term “cyberchondria” emerged in 2000 to refer to the practice of leaping to dire conclusions while researching health matters online, the Microsoft study is the first systematic look at the anxieties of people doing searches related to health care, Eric Horvitz said.

Mr. Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, said many people treated search engines as if they could answer questions like a human expert.

“People tend to look at just the first couple results,” Mr. Horvitz said. “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘A.L.S.,’ that’s their launching point.”

Mr. Horvitz is a computer scientist and has a medical degree, and his fellow investigator, Ryen W. White, is a specialist in information retrieval technology.

They found that Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.

For example, there were just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is infinitesimally small.


An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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