Blog | Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I found my brain tumor on the internet!

The phenomenon of cyberchondria (putting your symptoms into a search engine and coming with a dramatic diagnosis) is already well-known to most primary care physicians. A new study from Microsoft delves a little deeper into the causes and potential remedies of this problem.

First, the impressive statistics: a quarter of 250,000 studied users engaged in a medical search, and more than half of 500 Microsoft employees had at some point interrupted their day to search for information about a serious illness. (And not being medical reporters, they can't count that as work.) But what's truly shocking is that a large proportion of the study participants assessed the likelihood of their symptom being caused by a serious disease (i.e., is that headache a brain tumor?) based on the ranking of search results. (If brain tumor comes up before caffeine withdrawal, then you've probably got a brain tumor.)

The finding points out a flaw in the theory behind search engines. While search results are meant to be the product of our collective intelligence (best results at the top of the page), they are just as affected by our collective idiocy/hypochondria.

The computer guys do have some ideas about solutions, although the remedies are almost as scary as the problem. Search engines could be tailored based on individual search histories, they suggest, to keep people who tend to escalate their searches (e.g., from chest pain to heart attack) from getting the most dire results up top. Seems unlikely to be a popular idea, though, since 40% of survey participants admitted to having mistakenly thought they had a serious condition, but only 3.5% of them self-identify as hypochondriacs.