Rhodri Marsden: Is looking up my symptoms online ever a good idea?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

I had a nagging stomach pain the other day that stubbornly refused to dissipate. You'll be delighted to hear that it cleared up a few days later – but even if it had carried on for a fortnight, I'd have avoided looking up the symptoms online.

My slight concern would become sweating panic as a range of diseases were flagged up as a possibility by authoritative-looking websites; I know this because I remember looking up "chest pain" once, and spending a sleepless night wondering whether I was experiencing aortic dissection or a coronary artery spasm. (Neither, unsurprisingly.)

Now gloriously free of stomach pain, I'm happy for Google to direct me to a site with a picture of health professionals poring over data, and the slogan "We bring doctors' knowledge to you". Well, yes, it does, but too much knowledge, all at once, and with precious little in the way of bedside manner.

Appendicitis, diverticulitis, colitis, blockage of a bile duct by gallstones, swelling of the liver with hepatitis – these are the first five possible afflictions. "Overindulgence, probably" or "Just some kind of bug, don't worry about it" are nowhere to be found.

Microsoft has just completed a research project – see bit.ly/medical – which investigates our propensity towards what they call "cyberchondria". "Our results show that web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns," they say – identifying the crucial fact that more information isn't necessarily a good thing.

Eric Horvitz, the artificial-intelligence expert behind the research, remembered being a student, sitting on his doctor's examination table, convinced that he was suffering from a rare and incurable skin disease. When he peeked at his records, he saw that the notes read: "Eric is in medical school, and he has been reading a lot."

Anyone who has ever had a sore throat and felt compelled to read online case studies of oesophageal cancer will know this already. But Microsoft may have identified a gap in the market, here, by noting that the vast majority of searches for health-related issues turn up not only unhelpful but deeply troubling results. And if it led to a search engine being created that offered calm reassurance rather than Google's line-up of certain death, then who knows, I might even tentatively consider using it.



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