Google alerts hospitals before flu hits

JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — Google’s Flu Trends tool can warn a hospital emergency room much faster than traditional reports that a flood of flu patients is coming, research shows.

The researchers found a strong correlation between the tool’s detection of more searches for flu information and a subsequent spike in patients with flu symptoms arriving at a busy urban hospital.

The correlation was especially powerful for child patients.


Lead investigator Andrea Dugas says the Google reports “are not 100 percent accurate and don’t replace current laboratory and other surveillance methods.”

“However, they are a powerful adjunct to our current surveillance systems,” says Dugas, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The researchers tracked and reviewed Google Flu Trends information for Baltimore City along with data on patients with influenza-like illness, or ILI, at the adult and pediatric emergency departments at the Johns Hopkins Hospital from January 2009 to October 2010. The journal Clinical Infectious Diseases published their report

There could eventually be a standard regional or national early warning system to alert frontline health care workers to flu outbreaks, says Richard Rothman, an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins and senior investigator for the study.

Rothman, Dugas, and their team hope to develop a highly reliable flu surveillance model that all emergency departments could use to decide when to beef up staffing or open up patient annexes.

Hospitals and other health care providers rely now on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu case reports provided during flu season, October to May, as a key way to track flu outbreaks.

The researchers say, however, that those traditional reports, compiled using data about hospital admissions, laboratory tests and clinical symptoms, often are weeks old by the time they reach practitioners. Thus, they can’t alert frontline health care workers to prepare day-to-day for surges in flu cases, even as the flu is spreading in real time, Rothman says.

Google Flu Trends, on the other hand, collects and provides data on search traffic for flu information on a daily basis by detecting and analyzing the inputting of flu-related search terms. Users of the free service can narrow their data reports by geographic regions, time frames and other parameters.

Although the science and medical community has generally accepted that a rise in flu search queries on Google Flu Trends corresponds with a rise in people reporting flu-like symptoms, the Johns Hopkins team is believed to be the first to show that Flu Trends data strongly correlate with an upswing in emergency room activity.

The study was funded by the Johns Hopkins University National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response.

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