Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A little knowledge

Earlier this month, Microsoft Research published a 32-page paper that details the extent to which health-related web searches contribute to a person's assessment of their own health. They conclude that, when a user searches for information about symptoms they've observed, the results can actually create anxiety and potentially unneeded medical attention. The researchers have even coined a new term for the phenomenon: Cyberchondria.

Here's how they say it works...
Someone enters their symptoms into a health site, like WebMD or MSN Health and Fitness. In the list of search results are a variety of conditions, all of which could be a real issue for that individual. But there is no context, training or real experience to use in assessing that list of conditions. Without the appropriate background knowledge, the user is left only to the limits of their imagination.

The best possible outcome is that they review the information with their doctor. But the worst-case scenario runs the spectrum from complete apathy to self-medication to a frantic trip to the ER. So while we've all heard (and probably used) the expression... "knowing just enough to be dangerous," it turns out that such a ratio of knowledge to available information (including context and experience) actually can be quite dangerous.

Microsoft Research Article: Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search

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