I’ve either got cancer or a case of cyberchondria

  • By Carolyn Butler The Washington Post
  • Monday, December 14, 2009 1:11pm
  • Life

It always starts out innocently enough — for example, with an eye twitch. It’s just a little tic, but it keeps coming and going over the course of a few weeks, and so I decide to do a little medical investigation online.

I plug “recurrent eye twitch” into my friendly search engine and, after several hours poring over a range of health-related Web sites — skimming over likely explanations such as fatigue, stress and too much caffeine in favor of dozens of worst-case scenarios — I am utterly convinced that I have multiple sclerosis, at the very least, and quite possibly Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But what really ails me? Cyberchondria, loosely defined as the baseless fueling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms due to Internet research, or, as I like to think of it, Googling oneself into a state of absolute, clinical hysteria.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Last year, Microsoft researchers Eric Horvitz and Ryen White documented the growing trend in “Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search,” which included a survey of 515 Microsoft employees and Web-search tracking of hundreds of thousands of consenting Windows Live toolbar users.

The report showed that about 2 percent of all the Windows Live searches were health related. Of the 250,000 or so users who engaged in at least one such query during the study, roughly one-third “escalated” their subsequent surfing to focus on far more serious conditions.

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a lot of high-quality health content on the Internet that has helped a lot of people, both on respected, vetted Web sites such as WebMD and Medstory, and also within the myriad online support groups.

In addition, Horvitz and White’s follow-up study found that while two in five people report that surfing the Web for health-related information has made them feel more nervous about a perceived medical condition, just over half say that it reduces anxiety.

The problems arise when people turn to a broad Web search to diagnose their ills, said Horvitz, whose professional credentials include an M.D. degree.

“We now see (the Internet) as a general oracle, in our pockets and desktops, that we can just ask questions to, and people think it’s going to answer all questions in a quality manner.“

Horvitz said that medical diagnostics requires taking in sets of symptoms, reflecting, having an interactive dialogue with a patient and then converging on a list of likely conditions.

“The Web is really great at finding out who played the role of Gilligan on ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ but not so good at weighing the evidence to give you good information about concerning and unconcerning health situations,” Horvitz said.

So, fellow cyberchondriacs, try to keep everything in perspective and seek out credible information. The Medical Library Association has some great tips for evaluating health research online.

Oh, and about that twitch? Eventually I asked my doctor about it, and he helped me figure out that I’m actually allergic to a new eye cream I bought to stave off the effects of aging.

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