Google Flu Search Tool Effective Warning System for Hospital EDs

Monitoring Internet search traffic on Google’s Flu Trends tool might better prepare hospital ERs for a surge in sick patients than waiting for outdated flu case reports, says a report published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Researchers from John Hopkins Medicine noted over a 21-month period a strong correlation between a rise in Internet searches for flu information, compiled by Google’s Flu Trends Internet search tool, and a rise in people coming into a busy urban hospital ER complaining of flu-like symptoms.

Researchers tracked and reviewed Google Flu Trends data for Baltimore City along with data on people seeking care in the separate adult and pediatric emergency departments at The Johns Hopkins Hospital from January 2009 to October 2010. They found the correlation between Internet searches and patient volume most pronounced regarding the number of children coming into the Hopkins pediatric ER with what doctors call influenza-like illness or ILI.

Currently, EDs, hospitals and other healthcare providers rely on CDC flu case reports provided during flu season, October to May, as a key way to track flu outbreaks.Researchers say CDC reports, compiled using a combination of data about hospital admissions, laboratory test results and clinical symptoms, are often weeks old by the time they reach practitioners and hospitals. Thus, they don’t provide frontline healthcare workers with a strong tool to prepare day-to-day for a surge in flu cases, even as the flu is spreading in real time.

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 certain flu-related search terms. The company says the search queries, when combined, are good indicators of flu activity. Users of the free service can narrow their data reports to geographic regions, time frames and other denominators.

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

Researchers say the report results show promise for eventually developing a standard regional or national early warning system for frontline healthcare workers. In the long term, researchers hope to develop a highly reliable flu surveillance model that all EDs can use to reasonably predict a spike in the number of flu-like cases. Such a system, researchers say, could help ED directors and senior administrators prepare by beefing up staffing or opening up patient annexes.

Source: John Hopkins Medicine, January 9, 2012

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