To the doctor or the web?

We all fear being ill. It is a rational fear that encourages us to take care of our health — to eat well, get rest and exercise. But when it becomes too large, fear of illness becomes an illness itself.

Hypochondriasis is a mental disorder characterized by excessive fear of or preoccupation with a serious illness, despite medical testing and reassurance to the contrary. It often involves constant self-examination, self-diagnosis and a preoccupation with one’s body. Those who suffer from hypochondria often doubt their physician’s diagnoses, and are unconvinced when reassured they do not have a serious medical condition.

And while hypochondriacs have been studied for a while, a new breed of hypochondria has emerged in recent years: cyberchondria.

A recent study performed by a research team from Microsoft found that “cyberchondria,” or the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptoms after web investigation, may be a growing problem among web users who seek medical information online.

The study found that “the use of the Web search as a diagnostic procedure … can lead users to believe that common symptoms are likely the result of serious illness.”

Those with cyberchondria may enter a search for “headache,” and end up looking at “brain tumor.” The study’s authors argue that though brain tumors can often be indicated by headaches, the frequency of brain tumors is so low that it is unreasonable and anxiety-causing for someone to associate his headache with the possibility of cancer.

The study focuses on three kinds of searches: web crawl (which uses a program or automated script to browse the web in a methodical way), web search (generally surfing the Internet) and domain search (searches performed in medical search engines).

The findings indicate that out of the people who performed searches for “headache,” the probability of ending at “brain tumor” is 0.03 for web crawlers, 0.25 for web searchers and 0.00 for domain searchers.

Considering that the actual US annual incidence rate of brain tumors is about 1 in 10,000, the web crawl and web search results illustrate an unusually high skew.

The study’s authors argue that most of cyberchondria is based on an intrinsic problem with understanding the web as a diagnostic tool.

Most people believe that search results appearing first are the most likely to be relevant; a survey conducted by the researchers showed that “three in four respondents have at least once interpreted the ranking of web search results as indicating the likelihood of the illness.”

We all believe the web can be a useful tool in examining symptoms, but, as the study shows, the Internet can lead to serious misdiagnoses.

And it turns out that regular folks aren’t the only ones who struggle with medically related searches; even some doctors and nurses misdiagnose when using the web.

Additionally, the study examined “escalation,” which the authors defined as the observed increases in the severity of concerns represented by the search terms within a single search session.

Though no direct interpretation can be made about the nature of an escalation (an example of which would be the “headache” to “brain tumor” jump in a single session), some information can be inferred.

The study’s authors suggest that this could represent a type of anxiety, as their fear increases and their perceived understanding of their condition is greatly exaggerated.

Though the study did have flaws — for example, logs of web searches are not indicative of a person’s emotions, perceptions or thoughts — it certainly provides an interesting insight to what has become a casualty of the information boom.

Cyberchondria is an instinct gone wrong. Web-based medical sources can be helpful, but diagnoses still need to be made by doctors.

The problem seems to be that many people do not seek physician help after consulting the Internet.

An evolutionary survival instinct to stay healthy and take care of ourselves has been distorted into a fear that prompts people to believe they are sick and seek knowledge without consulting a professional — which, ironically, causes unhealthy stress and anxiety.

Tiffanie Wu is a junior majoring in business administration and neuroscience.