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Cyberchondria: An opportunity for telecenters?

The New York Times carries a story on the wrong conclusions people jump to when they try to self-diagnose on the web. The story does not say that the findings of the study identify a market opportunity for telecenters, but I do.

Apparently two percent of all web searches are health related. Given the massive number of searches devoted to Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton and other luminaries, this is a very significant number. Of the people who search the web for health matters, many want to know about symptoms they are experiencing. And, according to the researchers, a significant number take the first few hits way too seriously and in addition jump to extreme conclusions like thinking that their head ache is caused by a brain tumor and not by caffeine withdrawal or a blocked sinus (that’s my explanation for everything!).

They found that Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.

For example, there were just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is infinitesimally small.

The researchers said they had not intended their work to send the message that people should ignore symptoms. But their examination of search records indicated that researching particular symptoms often led quickly to anxiousness.

Mr. Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, said many people treated search engines as if they could answer questions like a human expert. Now Microsoft’s solution is to redesign the interface. In places where not everyone has a computer at home, why not get an actual health professional to sit near a computer and interpret the search results? While Microsoft is tweaking the human-machine interface, we just plop a human next to the machine.

I know, I know. It’s much better to have the health professionals in places where they actually give treatment, preferably for free. One would obviously have to charge for this value added service, which would desecrate the free ethos of the telecenter.

But you know, innovation never came from thinking what you were supposed to think.

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