Google's philanthropic Flu Trends site has been able to track swine flu about as well as health care surveillance, according to Bloomberg. What else can trending searches tell us about the state of health in the United States?
(Above, Google Flu Trends shows incidence of swine flu in the U.S.; darker areas correlate with more flu-related searches.)
To answer that question, I got a little help from the Google team in New York. The data they showed me aren't so comforting: Judging by searches for unemployment, medicare, and Cobra insurance, Americans seem much more concerned about losing their health care benefits than in previous years—especially in a handful of hard-hit regions.
Using Google Insights for Search, a mashup engine that the incidence of search topics, we learn that searches for health insurance plans have been trending upward since 2005 and rose about 15% year-over-year in 2009, as shown in the graph below. Searchers in Florida, Oregon and Colorado have been submitting the most queries.
Searches about health care also spiked during last year's election season and have since become most prevalent in the District of Columbia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Indiana. More people are also looking to extend their coverage for family members, according to Google's data; searches for "cobra insurance" reached "breakout" status among Google's rising search terms, and cobra-related searches in 2009 have increased considerably. (Below, cobra insurance queries over time.)
With Obama planning to curtail Medicare and Medicaid budgets, interest in Medicare has also been rising according to Google's data. Predictably, the most Medicare queries have come out of Florida, but D.C., Kentucky, and Tennessee are also concerned. Rising search terms about Medicare include "aarp medicare complete" and "medicaid eligibility." (Below, medicare queries over time.)
Unemployment insurance is also a major concern, especially in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Google has registered over twice as many searches for "unemployment health insurance" nationwide in 2009 as in 2008. (Below, the endemic incidence of searches for "unemployment health insurance.")
One bright spot: incidence of flu may have already peaked at the beginning of October, according to Google's data, so if you've escaped H1N1 thus far, you might survive the winter without it.