In the privacy of a doctor's office, a patient can ask any question and have it be covered under doctor-patient confidentiality. But what happens when patients want to search possible symptoms of a disease or ailment online?
It's common to search for treatments for a migraine or stomach pain on WebMD, or a flu strain on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. But there's no way to know who else may be privy to that search information. So where do the data go when a patient presses enter?
That's what Tim Libert, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to know. He has been researching what happens with information that people search online and spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about the privacy implications.
On what happens when someone searches a health issue
I took a list of 2,000 common disease names — I mean everything from migraines to breast cancer. I ran those through a search engine and I found about 80,000 pages that were related to those terms. I looked at those pages and I found about 90 percent of those, when you load the page on your computer, it tells hidden parties the address of the page you're looking at. In cases where that address has the name of the disease or something, these hidden parties get to find out what it is you're interested in.