Google Flu Trends – Valuable, But Not Accurate

by pharmacy on February 15, 2011

A few years ago, Google noticed a pattern in its search patterns. Areas with high incidence of influenza had a high incidence of search for flu topics. Always on the ball for helpful and interesting tools, they aggregated this information to create animated maps and charts that showed areas where there were flu outbreaks. Since the CDC runs about two weeks behind in identifying outbreaks, this information could have proven invaluable. If it were accurate. Unfortunately, it’s not….quite.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Justin Ortiz at the University of Washington compared five years of data from Google Flu Trends with more accurate data provided by the CDC. What the data comparison revealed is that most people don’t know the difference between a cold or other respiratory infection and the flu. Google’s data accurately pinpointed areas where respiratory illness was prevalent, but it did not accurately narrow down flu epidemics.

What good is faulty data?

Understanding the relationship between Google Flu Trends data and CDC data is important to pharmacists for several reasons. Overstocking flu medications based on Google Flu Trends might be a mistake, but understanding the fears and concerns of your community is paramount to providing good service. The data may not accurately predict the flu, but it does reveal outbreaks of illnesses that produce flu-like symptoms. A far more accurate name for Google Flu Trends would be Google Flu-Like Symptom Trends, but it’s not a terribly catchy name.

The CDC has two networks that monitor these trends. The virologic surveillance system tracks patients that visit doctors with flu-like symptoms and are confirmed to have influenza after lab tests. The influenza-like-illness surveillance network tracks reports of flu-like illnesses that are not the flu but present with similar symptoms, like fever, aches and pains, coughing, and fatigue. Google Flu Trends very accurately predicts the latter, weeks faster than the CDC can because they must wait for reports of test results. Google search results are aggregated in real-time, making the maps and chart results literally up to the minute. The bottom line for medical professionals is that fast, free results can help contain an epidemic as it starts. Paying attention to what symptoms people are Googling can help define the health concerns of the area, even for those who do not ultimately seek medical help.

How do I use this information?

As a pharmacist, it’s important to have your finger on the pulse of community health concerns. If your area is trending, there is an outbreak or fear of an outbreak, it’s just not necessarily flu. Knowledge can calm your customer’s fears of epidemic…while adding to your personal credibility and trust quotient. Check the map, find out why your area is really trending, and prepare for both the illness and the potential panic. As we saw with SARS and H1N1, unreasonable fear can infect a community much faster than any virus. Arm yourself – and protect your customer base – with accurate information. You’ll earn customer loyalty and valuable word-of-mouth business at the same time.

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