Online Health Info Improves, But "Cyberchondria" an Issue

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Wikipedia have recently decided to team up in order to improve online health information. The 2 organizations came together for the first-ever Wikipedia Academy to be held in the United States; it also represented the first time that the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the online encyclopedia, has collaborated with a federal agency.

The Internet has undoubtedly changed how people communicate and navigate many other everyday aspects of living. Increasingly, these new media outlets, such as Wikipedia, are becoming a "go-to source" for answering people's medical questions, according to John Burklow, NIH associate director for communications and public liaison. The NIH, a veritable mine of health data and research on medical matters, seems like a commonsense resource for Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the fifth most popular property on the Web, with nearly 3 million articles and more than 17 million pages on the English version of the encyclopedia (as of July 31, 2009). Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has said that his objective and mission is to ensure that everybody everywhere can find information they want at any time for free.

With more and more people turning to the Internet to diagnose their symptoms, is this actually creating more anxiety for people? Many people now view the Internet as a virtual "oracle," and use the vehicle to try to determine the source of their medical problems; however, they sometimes find far more serious conditions and become more anxious and stressed (eg, a search for a simple headache could return "brain tumor" as often as "caffeine withdrawal," according to a recent study from Microsoft researchers Eric Horvitz and Ryen White, "Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search"). Horvitz and White also completed a follow-up study that found that whereas 2 in 5 people report that surfing the Web for health-related information has made them feel more nervous about a perceived medical condition, just over 50% of individuals say it reduces anxiety.

It is important, however, to recognize the high-quality health content on the Internet that has helped a lot of people. Horvitz maintains that the challenge for the Web is to improve health content, just as NIH and Wikipedia are currently teaming up to do, so it more accurately reflects probability and likelihoods. In the meantime, these "cyberchondriacs" should keep perspective and stick to the credible Web resources.