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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eric has been reading a lot: Medical schoolitis and cyberchondria

Eric Horvitz is an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research. He remembers, years ago, while in medical school, "sitting on a cold seat with my legs dangling off the examination table," convinced that he was suffering from a rare and incurable skin disease. While the doctor was out of the room, Eric took a look at his medical chart and saw that the doctor's note read, "Eric is in medical school and he has been reading a lot."

In medical school, the common "diagnosis" by medical students of very rare conditions is called "second year syndrome" or "medical schoolitis." Medical students, according to the well-known joke, often jump to the conclusion that hoofbeats and whinnies are the signs of a zebra rather than a horse. Patients often make the same mistake, fearing they have a rare and dread disease when, much more often than not, they have a less serious condition.

On the Internet, the large number of stories on any topic often indicate to the lay reader a very wide variety of diagnoses, and many patients latch onto the most serious, even if very rare, condition. "Cyberchondria" is the name of this new malady.

Advice to those searching the Web for medical information: Take it with a grain of salt.

Read a story of a misdiagnosis of a harmless condition.

Thanks to John Markoff for the source story in today's New York Times.

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