Google Flu Trends a good warning system for EDs

Why wait for a slow, clunky government report to learn about illness trends in your area when, with the click of a mouse, you can do so in near real time? That's the gist of a report published this week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, which concludes that targeted Internet traffic can serve as a good predictor of patient activity for hospitals.

Specifically, the study looks at use of Google's Flu Trends (GFT) over a 21-month period, from Jan. 2009 through Oct. 2010 in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins researchers, led by Richard Rothman, MD, PhD, found that the number of searches for flu information on the Internet spiked simultaneously with the number of cases of children who presented with flu-like symptoms at Hopkins' pediatric ED.

The search results provide data seven to 10 days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's U.S. Influenza Sentinel Provider Surveillance Network can present the same information, according to researchers. "By harnessing health-related searches on the Internet, GFT combines focused information from a large spectrum of the population with geospatial data to create a broad-reaching yet geographically specific surveillance system," they write.

Meanwhile, recent research presented by the Center for Studying Health System Change finds that web searches for health information by consumers has hit a plateau.

Still, Rothman and his colleagues hope to continue use of such technology in a surveillance-like fashion for EDs, particularly with an eye on staffing and surge capacity planning measures.

"GFT correlated well with several pediatric ED crowding measures," they write. "This highlights the potential value of linking GFT with an ED response plan."

To learn more:
- here's the study's abstract
- check out the Johns Hopkins announcement

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