Googling Gamble: Health News in the Information Age

Americans increasingly turn to Internet for health, medical information

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) More Americans are tuning to the Internet to get their health and medical news, a recent study shows. But is the information they're getting valuable?

More than 97,531 Internet searches were conducted for cancer information among 361,916,185 persons in the United States in 2008. These searches were related to basic information (19 percent), followed by treatment (9 percent) and diagnosis (7 percent).

In 2010 the overall total number of cancer-related Internet searches jumped to 179,025 for an increase of more than 183 percent. Breast cancer accounted for 21 percent of the searches with 21,102 queries in 2008. That figure spiked to nearly 86,000 searches in 2010. About .2 percent of oncological Internet searches were related to litigation in 2010 with those seeking breast-cancer information most likely to research this topic.

With figures like these, it's imperative efforts are made to ensure reliable, fact-based information is available. Until then, Internet users will continue to gather health-related information from the Web -- which could be dangerous. An individual might cause undue emotional stress by inaccurately diagnosing themselves with a terminal illness based on a few vague symptoms -- or disregard symptoms that are in fact indicative of a serious illness or disease, based on Internet findings.

Eric Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, which launched one of the first studies to look at anxieties of people searching for healthcare information on the Web, found that people tend to look at the first couple of results of a Google search and diagnose themselves.

Horvitz noted that finding "brain tumor" while searching for headache information or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal motor-neuron disease, when looking for information about muscle twitches can become a launching point for endless worry and self-diagnosis, when in fact, these are two relatively rare diseases. In other words, headaches and muscle twitches are likely to be caused by other, more benign conditions. After all, brain tumors affect only about 1 in 10,000, and ALS about 1 in 55,000.

Material is perceived as fact-based simply because it appears on a computer screen, said Pamela Hartzband, MD, and Jerome Groopman, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the New England Journal of Medicine. They added nothing has changed clinical practice more fundamentally than the Internet, the profound effects of which stem from the fact that while previous technologies have been fully under the doctor's control, "the Internet is equally in the hands of patients."

Horvitz said search engines like Google and Yahoo! don't preclude bias toward more interesting or eye-popping health reading material. (Let's face it, brain tumors are more attention-grabbing news items than caffeine-withdrawal, a far more common cause of headache). He said these search engines are programmed to generate results relevant to the query, not to the person making it.

But for the most part, people continue to seek health information from personal resources such as friends, family and health professionals, as opposed to the Internet, according to a survey by the Pew Internet Project in association with the California HealthCare Foundation.

Mobile apps (applications for mobile devices like iPhones) play a growing role in helping people find health information, especially among young people. Seventeen percent of cell phone owners have used their phone to search for health or medical information, according to the report. These apps can calculate risk for developing certain diseases like diabetes, provide health tips, keep track of workouts and/or count calories. How accurate these apps are remains to be verified, however.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 11, 2011
Last Updated:
January 11, 2011