Google Will Save the World

Nearly two years ago, I blogged about my fear of global pandemic and how I thought Google might be the thing that saves us by providing an early warning system. Since that time, Google.org has instituted a system that provides real-time measurement of flu queries. (By the way, Google flu trends shows that this was not a bad year at all for the flu, and the worst seems to be behind us already this flu season.)

We now have the first good example of Google saving the world. O.K., well not really. Some researchers have published a paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal which shows that, if someone had happened to be looking, Google might have given us early warning on a Listeriosis outbreak in Canada that ultimately killed 40 people.

Of course, it is a million times easier to go and study data after the fact as opposed to identifying a trend as it happens (case in point: the financial crisis). Still, when the next pandemic comes around, forget about the emergency room; Google is your best hope for survival.

(Hat tip: Hunter Walk)


Michael F. Martin

"Of course, it is a million times easier to go and study data after the fact as opposed to identifying a trend as it happens (case in point: the financial crisis)."

But at least financial data should be available to the public more often than one a quarter! It now takes half a year before the public gets to see a trend. Inexcusable.

http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com/broken_symmetry/2009/03/why-accounting-information-should-be-reported-in-real-time.html

Alec Glucksman

Google Flu Trends is indeed a fascinating and great application. It has many uses, both recreational and scientific.

But Google Flu Trends relies on people Googling their symptoms to detect the trends--obviously. (Needless to say people may Google symptoms and information about the flu because they are curious, but that's another story.) This assumes that people have or witness those symptoms. That means that the pandemic has already hit.

I think the most alarming part of this post is when you say: "Still, when the next pandemic comes around, forget about the emergency room; Google is your best hope for survival." I think we all know how overrun hospitals and ERs will be when a pandemic hits. Calling Google our best hope for survival... well, that's just telling. And scary.

Commoner

To a similar point of the previous poster. I've never heard of Listeriosis. Will this article cause a false alarm if trends were being watched (as I will now have to google it)? Or I suppose once the cat is out of the bag, it's free to run rampant...

Adam

I agree that the Google data is impressive. As an emergency physician in Texas, I monitor Google Flu trends regularly and I definitely believe that data relating to other illnesses would be invaluable (food poisoning, respiratory illnesses, rare infectious diseases, etc).

As you know, most emergency departments in the country (certainly in Texas) are working at or near capacity most of the time. However, we all have disaster plans in place that we evaluate and modify routinely in order to prepare for pandemics, biological and chemical exposures, and mass trauma. Though for extreme or very unique situations these disaster preparations will likely be insufficient, I think that for most foreseeable upticks in patient volume, the vast majority of community emergency departments will be able to accommodate patients in need.

Also, idea that lower acuity emergency patients can be redirected to more appropriate and cost effective resources is not new. My ED as well as several others in my area have been doing so successfully for two years. The results of this policy has been increased ability to handle "real emergencies". Over time, many of the routine and urgent patients have realized that they will be redirected to other facilities and our need to "screen" them has diminished while the percentage of patients seen in our department requiring emergent stabilization, admission, or transfer has increased.

I read in a trade journal that Levitt and Dubner were working on placing an economic value on emergency physicians - I'll be very curious to see their conclusions. As a physician administrator, I certainly believe that there are significant differences when one ED physician is compared to another. Keep up the great work guys.

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Brad

Of course if it was revealed that President Obama or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or another "influential" man had disabling priapism, Google might just reveal that there is a rash of painful boners going on all over the country.

(Sometimes we google things because we are curious as to what it is. This is especially true if the medical term doesn't reveal the common name.)