Cancer Research UK highlights benefits of online health resources

In collaboration with the Press Association

Cancer Research UK has underlined the importance of authoritative online health information following a study by Microsoft that suggested some people may become anxious as a result of their online searches.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of medical information on the internet, allowing people to find information about suspected symptoms of ill-health without visiting a doctor in the first instance.

But many studies have found that there is a large amount of unreliable online health information, and people do not always check for obvious signs of reliability, such as the source of the information or the date it was updated.

 

Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, researchers at Microsoft, carried out a study of health-related Web searches on popular search engines, and surveyed 515 Microsoft employees about how they searched for health information online.

They found that searches for common symptoms such as headache or pins-and-needles often resulted in people looking at serious but rare conditions and becoming unnecessarily anxious that they might be seriously ill, a phenomenon they have dubbed 'cyberchondria'.

For instance, a patient who had symptoms of a headache might find themselves worrying over whether or not they might have a brain tumour.

However, Cancer Research UK noted that while online health information providers should take steps to minimise unnecessary anxiety, many people learn important information while surfing the web, some of which could encourage them to visit their doctor and lead to the diagnosis of a treatable illness.

Henry Scowcroft, manager of Cancer Research UK's 'News and Resources' website, said: "While this research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, its authors raise several important points about how people access health information online.

"Paradoxically, the problem in the UK is that many people are still unaware of the symptoms of cancer, and delay in seeing a doctor is one of the key reasons why this country's cancer survival figures lag behind the best in Europe," he continued.

"It's important to study this area further, but we must also remember that many people still have no access to the wealth of information online, and that health inequalities - including inequality of information access - are widening, not narrowing.

"Cancer Research UK aims to give people access to accurate, up-to-date online information on cancer, for example on our patient information website, CancerHelp UK, and the Healthy Living section of our News & Resources site."

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