Going Online to Track the Flu

Going Online to Track the Flu

Hospitals may have a new tool at their disposable to better anticipate flu cases in their area. It's simple, it's free, and it's something many Americans use every day. In fact, you might have used it to find this article. Give up? It's Google.

More specifically, it's Google's Flu Trends tool, which collects and provides data on search traffic for flu information on a daily basis by detecting and analyzing certain flu-related search terms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found that this online tool may better help hospitals prepare for a surge in flu patients compared to waiting for outdated government flu case reports.

Currently, emergency departments, hospitals and other health care providers rely 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. But researchers pointed out that these traditional reports often are weeks old by the time they reach practitioners and hospitals. They therefore are unable to help health care workers prepare day-to-day for a surge in flu cases, even as the flu is spreading in real time.

Google's free Flu Trends service can narrow the data reports to geographic regions, timeframes and other denominators. For the study, the researchers tracked and reviewed Google Flu Trends data for Baltimore City, along with data on people seeking care, into the separate adult and pediatric emergency departments at The Johns Hopkins Hospital from January 2009 to October 2010.

Richard Rothman, M.D., Ph.D., an emergency medicine physician and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and the senior investigator on the study, said the results show promise for eventually developing a standard regional or national early-warning system for frontline health care workers.

The study was published in the Jan. 9 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

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