Study: 'Google Flu Trends' a powerful early warning system for emergency departments

January 9, 2012

Monitoring Internet search traffic about influenza may prove to be a better way for hospital emergency rooms to prepare for a surge in sick patients compared to waiting for outdated government flu case reports. A report on the value of the Internet search tool for emergency departments, studied by a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine over a 21-month period, is published in the January 9 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The researchers reported a strong correlation between a rise in Internet searches for information, compiled by Google's Flu Trends tool, and a subsequent rise in people coming into a busy urban complaining of flu-like symptoms.

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, says the results show promise for eventually developing a standard regional or national for frontline .

Rothman and lead study investigator Andrea Dugas, M.D., recently hosted a national conference in Baltimore of experts from around the country to discuss the implications of their findings. In the long term, says Rothman, the Johns Hopkins team hopes to develop a highly reliable flu surveillance model that all emergency departments could use to reasonably predict a spike in the number of flu-like cases. Such a system, he says, could help directors and senior administrators prepare by beefing up staffing or opening up patient annexes.

Rothman and his team found the correlation between Internet searches and patient volume was most pronounced when researchers reviewed data showing a rise in for flu information and the number of children coming into the Hopkins pediatric emergency room with what doctors call influenza-like illness or ILI.

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

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.

However, the researchers say those traditional 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 health care 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, Rothman notes.

, 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.

Explore further: MRSA spread could be tracked through Google search patterns

Related Stories

MRSA spread could be tracked through Google search patterns

May 23, 2011

( -- Google searches are apparently providing much more important information than just a typical search for a local restaurant or research for a term paper. Google trends are also providing much more information ...

Recommended for you

Monkeys in Asia harbor virus from humans, other species

November 19, 2015

When it comes to spreading viruses, bats are thought to be among the worst. Now a new study of nearly 900 nonhuman primates in Bangladesh and Cambodia shows that macaques harbor more diverse astroviruses, which can cause ...

One-step test for hepatitis C virus infection developed

November 14, 2015

UC Irvine Health researchers have developed a cost-effective one-step test that screens, detects and confirms hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections. Dr. Ke-Qin Hu, director of hepatology services, will present findings at the ...

Computer model reveals deadly route of Ebola outbreak

November 10, 2015

Using a novel statistical model, a research team led by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health mapped the spread of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, providing the most detailed picture to date ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.