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Nurse Educator:
doi: 10.1097/01.NNE.0000334844.59694.31
Departments: News, Notes and Tips

Do You Know a Cyberchondriac?

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As more and more people turn to the internet for health related information a new condition is emerging: cyberchondria. This condition can be defined as "the baseless fueling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms due to Internet research," or as "Googling oneself into a state of absolute, clinical hysteria over every last pain, itch and strange freckle on your body."1

In 2008, a physician and colleague surveyed 515 Microsoft employees and thousands of consenting Windows Live toolbar users. The report showed that about 2% of all searches carried out on Windows Live were health-related. One third of the 250,000 respondents reported that they began their Web search to find information about a specific problem, but then their search escalated to focus on more serious and less common conditions. Microsoft Employees admitted that their personal "cyberchondriac" activities had interrupted their daily life at least one time.

Even though many health related Web resources are useful and reliable, problems do arise when people use the Web to diagnose their own illnesses. White and Horvitz2 emphasize that diagnosis is a sophisticated task requiring much more than the simple retrieval of information available to the consumer on the internet. When a person types "headache" into a search engine they are as likely to get "brain tumor" (incidence rate: 1 in 10,000) as "caffeine withdrawal" (a likely cause).2 Unfortunately, few people understand that the order in which these search results show up is related to click-through rates more than likelihood of occurrence of a given set of symptoms. Thus anxiety and concern develop and alter judgment.2

White and Horvitz (an MD) note that Web architects need to work to improve health content to reflect disease likelihood. They also suggest developing search engines that factor in a multitude of complex information, including family history. A mechanism that intervenes to limit or guide a search when Web behavior indicates "cyberchondria" is advisable. Meanwhile, steering students, patients, and perhaps even ourselves to resources such as the tips from the Medical Library Association3 is advisable.

Submitted by: Robin Pattillo, PhD, RN, News Editor atNENewsEditor@gmail.com.

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References

1. Butler C. Tuesday, November 10, 2009. A glut of Google can give you a virtual fever. The Washington Post. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/06/AR2009110603473.html. Accessed on November 15, 2009.

2. 2. White R & Horvitz E. November, 2008. Cyberchondria: Studies of the escalation of medical concern in web search. Microsoft Research. Available at http://research.microsoft.com/apps/pubs/default.aspx?id=76529. Accessed on November 15, 2009.

3. MLA: Medical Library Association. A user's guide to finding and evaluating health information on the Web. Available at http://www.mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html. Accessed on November 15, 2009.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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