If you’ve ever had a nagging pain or health symptom your doctor can’t diagnose, you’ve probably gone online for medical information. But a new study has found the way symptoms are presented online makes a huge difference in how consumers react.
Arizona State University researchers, reporting in Psychological Science, have found that identifying symptoms in "streaks" - sequences of a few specific items on a list - prompts people to perceive a higher disease risk than when long lists of generic symptoms are listed.
For the study, researchers reviewed how symptoms are presented online for the 12 deadliest forms of cancer by five reputable cancer websites.
Two studies were conducted to gauge how people respond to the information. The first presented six symptoms for a fictional type of thyroid cancer to study participants. Researchers varied the way the symptoms were presented from three common symptoms (fatigue) followed by three more specific symptoms (lump in neck); another group was presented symptoms with three specific followed by three common; and a third group reviewed a symptoms list with common and specific info interspersed.
Researchers found the participants in the first two groups had similar reactions, but the third group perceived the medical risk as significantly lower than the other two.
A second study followed the same design as the first, but when the symptom list was expanded to 12 items, study participants perceive the health risk as much lower.
Researchers concluded the difference suggest adding more items to an online symptoms list – and interspersing common and specific information – tends to make people feel less concerned. As a result, they may not seek medical care.
The findings suggest medical professionals who post information online should consider how the symptoms are presented, depending on their goal. For instance, if the goal is to increase awareness of an emerging health issue that requires treatment, a short list of specific symptoms grouped together is likely to get more reaction. If concerns are that public perceptions of risks are unreasonably high then symptom lists should be longer and alternate common and specific symptoms.
"Previous research shows that perception of risk of disease is a powerful predictor of health preventative behavior (such as going to the doctor)," said lead researcher Virginia Kwan.. "How information is presented online will make a substantive difference in behavior."