On November 11th, Google announced its new web tool “Google Flu Trends.” The concept is simple; Google assumes that people who are sick will search their symptoms on the Web. Using a list of keywords relating to the flu like thermometer, muscle aches, and fever, Google tracks the queries and charts them by regions and states. Tests show that the service may detect outbreaks seven to ten days before the CDC reports them. Because the data is public, it allows for a form of “collective intelligence.” Potentially, subscribers to the system can get an e-mail warning them to take extra precaution when a bug is going around the community before the doctors even know!
The potential benefits are numerous, and I think most have yet to be discovered. The trend tracking system could be used to track other infectious diseases and predict the future. People are starting to turn to Google before visiting their doctor, and if a new virus emerges with unusual symptoms, Google might notice a trend and alert authorities. An early warning system can accelerate the response to outbreaks and reduce the spread anywhere in the world. HealthMap, backed by Google, also uses the Web to track infectious diseases around the world, but in a different way. HealthMap looks for news articles, blog posts and electronic newsletters to track diseases whereas Google Trends uses search engines.
Google Flu might be part of the movement toward EHR (electronic health records) where everyone would have their health records online. As of right now, most doctors continue to write everything on paper. Lists of immunizations and previous conditions and treatments have to be faxed or sent by mail. Why do we still do it this way? (There are reasons but for lack of time I’m not going to go into them- and in my opinion they do not outweigh the benefits, but just know that they exist). The collected data could help identify the best care options. The EHR system would benefit hospitals seeking to treat patients who have they know nothing about. I think EHR would increase physician efficiency overall (faster and more accurate diagnosis). The electronic health records would also reduce cost.
The trend tracking system of taking Internet user’s searches and using them to predict the future could alarm privacy advocates. However, Google Flu Trends uses data that cannot be used to identify individual users. One of my friends brought up another problem as I excitedly told her of the possibilities, she asked, “As more people find out about the system, won’t they go right to the tracker first, instead of typing in their symptoms, to find out if the flu is a likely culprit ailing them?” The executive director of Google.org does caution that the data will need to be monitored to ensure correlation with the flu remains valid. Using technology to track and change factors relating to health is obviously just the next step towards the future of public health. However, it is most certainly an exciting one.
Helft, Miguel. “Google Uses Searches to Track Flu’s Spread.” New York Times 11 Nov. 2008.0