Microsoft studies cyberchondria

November 26, 2008 | 08:57

Tags: #search #web

Companies: #microsoft

A study undertaken by Microsoft has revealed a dark side of browsing for medical information on the web: the snappily-titled 'cyberchondria'.

The survey, which the New York Times highlights as covering “health-related Web searches on popular search engines as well as a survey of the company's employees,” seems to have uncovered evidence of a widespread digital analogue (if there can be such a thing) to medical students' disease – the condition by which an overworked medical student will frequently consider him or herself to be suffering from the very maladies currently being studied.

Study leader, AI researcher at Microsoft Eric Horvitz, says that the problem comes from people treating a search engine as if it were capable of answering a question rather than just providing keyword-driven links to information. “People tend to look at just the first couple [of] results, [and] if they find 'brain tumor' [sic] or 'A.L.S.', that's their launching point.

An example of the issues this can cause for the cyberchondriac is in the example of searching for information on a recurrent headache: as many links are given describing the symptoms of a brain tumour as are given for the rather more likely case of caffeine withdrawal.

Estimating that around two percent of all queries to search engines are in some way health related, the study showed around a quarter of the one million individuals monitored searching for medical information during the sample period. A third of those went to to explore information regarding serious illnesses relating to their original search.

While Horvitz's message is clear – don't worry yourself into an early grave based on what the web might think you have, and consult someone with a medical qualification if you're unsure – the main outcome of the upcoming study of the results gathered will be for Microsoft to create a more expert-like search engine capable of giving 'answers' to queries of this nature rather than just blind links. Whether such a service would be of interest to those convinced they're suffering from some incredibly rare malady is something that Microsoft will have to think long and hard about.

Have you ever seen your doctor with a sheaf of Wikipedia entries, convinced that you're suffering from some impossible to spell ailment? Can you see a use for a service which attempts to offer medical advice without consultation or examination? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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