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Internet Symptom Checkers

April 16, 2012

People draw different conclusions from online symptom checkers, depending on how the symptoms are listed.



A new look at self-diagnosis.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

More and more people are using online symptom checkers to decide whether to see a doctor. But according to Arizona State University psychologist Virginia Kwan, the way the symptoms are listed on the website can affect their decision.  Her team found that when common symptoms, like headache and fatigue, were grouped consecutively, people felt they were more likely to have the illness in question.

VIRGINIA KWAN (Arizona State University):

When you look at those symptom checklists, and you say “oh, I have this, I have this, I have this,” it’s more likely to feel, oh maybe their medical risk is higher.

However, alternating common symptoms with rare ones, like a lump on the neck, made people less worried.  The effect was strongest for relatively short lists.   But Kwan says that medical websites may want to tailor their symptom lists for each illness, depending on whether it’s often missed or tends to attract unfounded worry.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Popular websites that allow you to diagnose yourself based on a list of symptoms may cause unnecessary worry, depending on how the symptoms are listed. (Jupiter Images)