People needlessly fear the worst diagnosis after surfing the net concludes a Microsoft study of health-related Web searches on popular search engines and a survey of 515 of its own employees about their health-related searching. This was reported by BBC news (see “Web searches feed health fears“).

“The researchers found Web searches for common symptoms such as headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.”

We’ve heard this kind of stuff about a new generation of “cyberchondriacs” before. Usually, reports of such research ends with the warning: “health information on the Web was no substitute for expert advice.” This report follows that rule.

In response to this research, I would point out that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it,” especially if it’s poisoned! The horse instinctively knows. In the case of humans searching the Web for health information, Health 2.0 tools and sites (eg, discussion forums, etc.) can help distinguish poisoned from refreshing waters.