A new study found that online information seeking could lead to cyberchondria rather than to useful information for consumers.
One evening last week, as I struggled to find a comfortable position for sleeping post-op, my fingers found the healing incision on my abdomen. My internal monologue went something like this:
I wonder how long it takes for these stitches to dissolve, anyway? I think the doctor said a few weeks, but I didn’t expect to still feel the strings after the wound closed. Is this normal? What is this dissolvable string made of anyway? How does my body absorb it? What are the long-term effects of having this substance in my body?
I considered my go-to source for health information, my physician spouse. Only lately, I’ve noticed my borderline-hypochondriac questioning has become fodder for my physician spouse’s physician friends. Silently, I chided myself for leaving my smartphone at the family docking station downstairs. I was but a quick Google search away from answers to my now-burning questions, and sleep.
But, even for me, with higher-than-average health literacy, those online searches don’t always lead to answers. Often, I end up with more questions. And without a doubt, all of my symptoms, from moles on my leg to feeling dizzy, could possibly be cancer, according to Dr. Google.
Indeed, a new study found that online information seeking can lead to cyberchondria rather than to useful information for consumers. Conducted by a group of researchers from Queensland University of Technology, the Australian e-Health Research Centre, and Vienna University of Technology, the study investigated how effectively search engines retrieve useful information for non-medical people seeking health information online.
Researchers found that only half of the top 10 results retrieved by Google and Bing was somewhat relevant. Only about 3 in 10 results were useful in self-diagnosis. The investigators found that people searching for health information online were likely to find information that further confuses—and may potentially harm—them.
3 ways online health information seeking can be harmful
1. The Internet makes hypochondria easier.
Previously, Joe Hypochondriac might have to go to the library, where he’d consult a stack of medical books, many of which he couldn’t understand.
He might even make an appointment with his primary care provider. Now, all of this information (even the doctor) can be found online in a few clicks.
2. It’s not necessarily free.
Joe Hypochondriac might miss a day of work, or have an accident at work, because he spent an entire night wading through tens of thousands of search results rather than sleeping. Or he may not rest until he’s been cleared by unnecessary and sometimes costly medical tests. Having all the world’s information (some of it accurate and trustworthy, some of it questionable) can cost the patient, employer, insurer, and physician a lot of time and money.
3. Online symptom searching can make us sick.
Anxiety, often associated with hypochondria, can wreak havoc with our health. Joe Hypochondriac might lose sleep, overeat, smoke cigarettes, or overuse alcohol or other drugs—not to mention how he might make better use of the time he spends Googling his symptoms by going for a walk or hitting the gym.
Does online health information help or hurt? It depends...
One of the issues at the heart of the most recent study is that people tend to search based on more colloquial descriptions of their symptoms. In my above example, I might have searched “dissolvable stiches how long.” In this case, the top 10 results from Google are somewhat useful. The top result is from the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS article does discuss the materials in the stitches, but when it comes to how long it should take for them to dissolve, the answer is: it depends.
It depends, according to the study’s findings, because the search engine is only as medically sophisticated as I am.
It depends, because Google doesn’t know what kind of surgery I had, nor in what country or what hospital it was performed. The search engine has no way of knowing if I had any complications, or specifically how my body might react to the presence of sutures.
It depends because not everyone with Internet access will conduct a search for the same reasons.
An article published last week in the New York Times discusses the dilemma of a journalist who obsessively searches the Internet for her phrases—thinking she might have plagiarized them—after sending them off to her editor. She doesn’t find evidence that her words have been published previously elsewhere, but this doesn’t stop her feelings of after-submission panic. Klass says:
I think my anxiety is actually rooted in the technology. Because now it is possible for me to know—instantly… I can check this, and therefore I should check this.
It depends because not everyone will develop health-related anxiety.
A new search
The research team conducted this current study in order to begin to investigate how well search engines retrieve medical data based on the average patient query. More research on new retreival methods for search engines, developed specifically for the average online health information seeker, is needed.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.