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Words Matter When it Comes to Tech-Savvy Patients

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 24, 2010

Meanwhile, a short time after his ruckus-raising Time column, Haig seemed to have learned his lesson—or at least expanded his lexicon. In 2008 he conducted a very civilized roundtable discussion with a group of orthopedic surgeons about how the Internet had changed their practices. The article was titled: How to deal with the digitally empowered patient.

Digitally empowered. Now that has a nice ring to it.

The phrase cyberchondriac came up again in 2008 in the title of a Microsoft study by Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search.

The authors of that study, however, use the term differently than does the Harris study. They grant—and good for them—that online medical information can help laymen better understand health and illness and provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms.

"However," the authors add, "the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure. We use the term cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web."

On the other hand, the Harris survey reports how many American adults go online for medical information. Yes, they could be going online to check on symptoms and self-diagnose and yes, they might freak themselves out by doing so.

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