How Symptoms Displayed Online Makes a DifferenceToday, more than ever, people are going to the Internet to find out what the symptoms they are experiencing could mean. New research shows that how that information is presented strongly influences whether people perceive a higher disease risk and seek professional medical care.

“More than 60 percent of individuals who are feeling ill go to the Internet to search for health information. Many decide to go to the doctor or not based on what they learn online,” said Virginia Kwan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “This is really an era of self-diagnosis. To our knowledge, our study is the first to examine the impact of online presentation formats on medical decision-making.”

The researchers found that identifying symptoms in “streaks” — sequences of consecutive items on a list — prompted people to perceive higher disease risk than symptoms that were not identified in an uninterrupted series.

Two studies were conducted, one where a fictional type of thyroid cancer was presented to study participants with six symptoms listed. Researchers varied the way the symptoms were presented from three common and frequently experienced symptoms (such as feeling easily fatigued) followed by three specific symptoms (lump in neck); another group was presented the symptoms with three specific followed by three common; and the third group received a list with common and specific symptoms interspersed. Researchers used the fictional cancer to ensure no one had prior knowledge of symptoms.

Study participants in the first two groups reported similar results, but the perceived medical risk was significantly lower for the last group that received specific and common symptoms that were interspersed.

A second study for a real type of brain cancer reported the same results as the first study, but when the symptom list was expanded to 12, effects of a list of consecutive series of symptoms was diluted.

“The length of the list matters,” Kwan said. “This is analogous to a dilution effect. If you don’t have that many symptoms, you may not experience concern about getting that disease if you’re looking at a long list.”

“Previous research shows that perception of risk of disease is a powerful predictor of health preventative behavior, such as going to the doctor,” Kwan said. “How information is presented online will make a substantive difference in behavior.”

Source: Arizona State University