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Dr Google Promotes “Cyberchondria”

Internet search engines are providing irrelevant health information that could lead to incorrect self-diagnosis, self-treatment and ultimately possible harm, according to research published in Advances in Information Retrieval.

Google has reported that 5% of its 100 million searches each month are for health-related information, and in 2012 the Pew Research Centre reported that 35% of American adults have gone online to self-diagnose a medical condition.

“People commonly turn to ‘Dr Google’ to self-diagnose illnesses or ailments,” said Dr Guido Zuccon of Queensland University of Technology. “But our results revealed only about three of the first ten results were highly useful for self-diagnosis and only half of the top ten were somewhat relevant to the self-diagnosis of the medical condition.”

The researchers showed participants medically-accurate images of common conditions like alopecia, jaundice and psoriasis, and asked what the participant would search for in an attempt to diagnose it. For jaundice, for example, queries including “yellow eyes”, “eye illness” and “white part of the eye turned green” were searched for.

“Because on average only three of the first results were highly useful, people either keep searching or they get the wrong advice, which can be potentially harmful for someone’s health,” Zuccon said.

It’s also possible people self-diagnosing online would experience “cyberchondria”, where subsequent searches could escalate concerns. “So if you had searched for the symptoms of something like a bad head cold, you could end up thinking you had something far more serious, like an issue with the brain,” Zuccon said.

“This is partly down to searcher bias and partly down to the way the search engines work. For example, pages about brain cancer are more popular than pages about the flu, so the user is driven to these results.”

Zuccon said search engines performed effectively if the name of the illness was already known, and that further research was needed to identify how to improve search engines to provide users with the most effective search results. “We are currently developing methods for search engines to better promote the most useful pages,” he said. “For example, along with colleagues at the CSIRO, we have developed algorithms that return pages that consumers find easier to understand, while maintaining the relevancy and correctness of the medical information presented.”