Monday, 01 Dec, 2008 Health & Fitness
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Health-related Web Searches May Escalate Fears

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Online information about health creates a new category of people, called cyberchondriacs. Researchers say that cyberchondriacs are people who pointlessly are afraid of the worst diagnosis after surfing the Internet.

A team of researchers at Microsoft analyzed health-related web searches on popular search engines in attempt to understand their effects on users. Researchers interviewed 515 employees asking them about searches they made on health. Experts consider that searches over the Internet can increase fears and if people are concerned about their health, they should consider paying a visit to the doctor instead of figuring out everything by themselves.

The team carried out the study in order to improve Microsoft's search engine. It is interesting to note that about 2 percent of all web searches are related to health. Throughout the study approximately 250,000 users (1/4th of the sample) performed at least one medical search.

It was discovered that people who sought, for example, for such common symptoms as headache and chest pain, were more likely to be directed to pages with information on serious illnesses, such as brain tumor, which occurs much rarer than a simple headache. Web searches for "chest pain" led people to pages describing other serious conditions, despite the fact that the possibility of having a heart attack is much lower than, for instance, having a pain in chest or a muscle injury, reports BBC News.

The survey showed that approximately 30 percent of employees involved in the research reported an increase in their follow-up searches to learn about rarer and more serious conditions.

"Our results show that Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns," outlined Eric Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher for the software giant.

A spokeswoman from NHS Direct mentioned that the Web may be a good place to discover additional information on a certain subject, but it should not prevent a person from visiting a clinician.

According to Henry Scowcroft, of Cancer Research UK, a lot of British people still do not possess enough information about the symptoms of cancer. These people often delay their visit to the doctor, which is why trusted information sites may be helpful to users who decide to study this field.

"We must also remember that many people still have no access to the wealth of information online, and that health inequalities - including inequality of information access - are widening, not narrowing," he said.

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