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Will Online Medical Help Like Webmd Make You Feel Worse?

Research suggests websites could re-order their listings in order to give patients better information.

With the onset of Internet sites like WebMD and others, many people find self-diagnosing their health, symptoms, aches and pains is preferable to trying to get in to see their doctor, fighting their health insurance provider (if they have health insurance), or doling out lots of money only to be told to take two aspirin and check back in the morning.

New research has found that many more people are turning to the web for medical help. In fact, more than 60 percent of Americans get their health information online, and a majority of those decide whether to see a doctor based on what they find online.

In a new study, researchers found that the way information is presented — specifically, the order in which symptoms are listed — makes a big difference. If people check off more symptoms in a row when they go to a health-related website, the research found, “they perceive a higher personal risk of having that illness.”

Testing Varies Order of Symptoms To Get Better Results

For example, when surveying cancer-related sites, the researchers discovered that these vary in the way they present common and mild — or “general” — symptoms and more specific and serious ones. To test how streaks affect risk perception, student volunteers were presented with lists of six symptoms of a fictional kind of thyroid cancer. One group got three general symptoms (such as fatigue and weight fluctuation) followed by three specific ones (e.g., lump in the neck); another got the same symptoms but in reverse order; and the third group saw a list alternating between general and specific symptoms. The volunteers checked off symptoms they’d experienced in the previous six weeks and then rated their perceived likelihood of having the cancer. The first two orders yielded similar risk ratings. But the ratings were significantly lower when the list alternated.

Useful Information For Public Health Education

A second experiment compared lists of 12 or six symptoms, this time for a real cancer, meningioma. The three orders were the same as in the first experiment. The effect of order disappeared for the longer, but not the shorter, list—that is, the influence of streaks was diluted when the list was longer. It’s possible that even if a participant checked a series of symptoms — leading to suspicion of disease — boxes left unchecked offered reassurance contrary to what was suggested otherwise, say the researchers.

The findings could prove useful for public health education. “With certain types of illnesses, people tend to seek medical attention at the latest stage,” they said. Meanwhile, “people also go to doctors asking all the time about illnesses that are very rare.” To encourage people to seek earlier health screenings, grouping common and mild symptoms on a website might be a better idea. And, in order to limit overreaction, the rare diseases should top the list on a website.

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  1. informative

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