Search no more for fast flu data: Google it instead

March 1, 2009

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) weekly flu reports lets primary care physicians-especially pediatricians-know what to expect in their sick waiting room. But there may be a more efficient, and more accurate, way to get this information: Google.

One of the search engine giant's many side projects is Google Flu Trends, which has found a way to track similar information that the CDC is gleaning from its own weekly reports. And Google's doing it two weeks faster than the CDC.

How? Web searches. Google records the time and place of all of its searches. By charting the times and places of those who searched for the word "flu" or "influenza," it can map a picture of where people want to get information about the flu. And people often throw their possible symptoms and conditions into search engines to read up on what they might have.

The CDC, for its part, has a much more rigorous way of collecting flu data than looking at Web queries. Its robust data operation has five different arms: just one of them involves a network of 2,400 health care providers taking care of 16 million patients. All that information takes time to process: time that Flu Trends seems to be saving. In addition, Google can track patients who haven't visited a doctor's office.

The Google health information data complies with privacy issues. Google researchers presented their results in a recent letter to Nature (published online in the November 19 issue). It emphasized the HIPAA-friendly anonymity of the searchers' personal information (Google identifies its data only by computer IP number-and doesn't give that out to third parties). This service, it says, can help providers better prepare for patients presenting with "influenza-like illnesses."

Of course, the government's flu data is still the definitive source when it comes to influenza information: it offers much more than a single color-coded chart of outbreak severity. But Google Flu Trends could become a regularly-visited bookmark for pediatricians looking for a sneak preview of that CDC report. At least between the months of November through April.