Google Helps Emergency Room Docs to Predict Flu Trends

How bad is the flu season? Doctors are Googling the answer

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Tom Grill

Google, the search-engine giant, may be able to help doctors anticipate when they’ll get a surge in the number of patients they see with flu symptoms.

That’s the new finding from a team of doctors, based in Baltimore, who relied on Google Flu Trends, a service that tracks the number of flu-related Internet searches by folks like you and me.  In an article this month in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, those doctors, led by Dr. Richard Rothman, an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine describe how data from Google Flu Trends stacked up against conventional systems to track the spread of flu.

It did pretty well. Plus, the service also had a major advantage over traditional surveillance: the Google data is updated every day and available to doctors almost instantly. Official surveillance data, in contrast, can take weeks to be compiled and distributed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means doctors may not hear about rapidly emerging flu outbreaks until they’re well underway.

Previous studies have already shown that Google Flu Trends can capture overall trends for large areas. But this new report is the first to show that Google data can predict changes in patient volume even within a single hospital — which makes Google Flu Trends much more relevant to individual doctors.

MORE: Is Google Any Help in Tracking an Epidemic?

To conduct their study, the researchers took local Baltimore data from the Google service, and compared it to data from their own patients: 21 months’ worth of statistics on emergency-room crowding and on lab tests for influenza. The Google data correlated highly with the number of positive lab tests for flu. They also correlated highly with emergency-room volume in the pediatric emergency department, and moderately with volume in the adults’ ward.

The finding suggests that an up-to-the-minute surveillance system for front-line health-care workers may be possible, say the researchers. They hope that such a system would help doctors and hospital administrators decide when to call in extra staff or, where possible, to open up an empty wing to allow more patients.

MORE: Using the Web to Track Deadly Diseases in Real Time

Google is hoping for the same thing. On the Google Flu Trends website, the search gurus note that at the national and international level, “up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and pandemics.” Who knows? Maybe the next time we’re on the verge of an influenza pandemic, we’ll have Google to thank for giving us a heads up.