12 November 2009

Flu Trends – using the Internet to spot emerging health concerns

By now some of you will be familiar with Google’s Flu Trends, a website that shows in general form, the intensity of Google search activity for keywords related to influenza, by country and region.

The trending analysis is shown both as a map and in a graph which you can access by clicking on the country and then the region within the country.

flutrendsnl That’s the one for Newfoundland and Labrador, at right.

The lighter blue lines represent the search patterns in prior years.  The dark blue one is 2009.

Now right away, the big, sudden jump might catch your attention.

But look for a second in the period just before that.  Note the steady increase in activity.  That means that within the province – starting in early September there was an increase in google searches in this province using terms related to influenza. 

That includes symptoms.  Someone types in “aches + fever + cough”  or something along those lines and then clicks to see what websites come back in the search results.

Increasing numbers of people are using the Internet to search for information about medical conditions.  They could be looking to diagnose themselves – not a good idea – or for things they know, like colds and flu, they may just be looking for some simple information on treating their symptoms.

Not surprisingly there is an online journal –started a decade ago – that is dedicated to health research and the Internet.  There are even terms for the study of information trends online.  Infodemiology is basically the Google Flu trends sort of thing.  It’s about finding and analysing trends in information about health, how it is found and how it is passed around.   Infoveillance is taking all the information gathered in infodemiology and figuring out what it means.

To get a sense of what this is about, you can skim through a slide show by Gunther Eysenbach, a physician and associate professor of health policy at the University of Toronto. Dr. Eysenbach demonstrates how it is possible to use the Internet to gather information both formally through things like online surveys or by collecting tweets and similar information information to spot trends.

The value of this form of intelligence gathering and analysis should be pretty obvious:  those responsible for delivering health care in an emergency can spot any trends and hopefully be prepared.  It’s like monitoring seismic activity or other geological information to see if there is a way of predicting earthquakes. online surveillance for these health purposes is also very similar in some respects to police agencies that use similar pattern-searches  to get advance warning of terrorist or other criminal activity.

Analysing the information in things like tweets can also be a good source of feedback for health policy experts as to what information is in demand or what information is being shared.  Eysenbach conducted a study of tweets during the spring outbreak of H1N1.  In a sample of 400 tweets drawn from a total of 300,000 collected by his system, Eysenbach found that

News posts were the most common type of information shared (46%) followed by public health education (19.18%) and H1N1-related humour (18.25%). 36.75% of all posts quoted news articles verbatim and provided URLs to the source. 

Take that, CNN and USA Today!

His research was prompted by news reports that suggested social media  - like Twitter and facebook - was fuelling rumour, misinformation and hysteria and thereby feeding a panic about H1N1.

This is just one aspect of a much larger change currently underway in society. In researching social media and health issues, your humble e-scribbler came across trending analysis using the Internet.

Fascinating, as Spock would say.