In July, the World Health Organization threw its hands up, declared H1N1 the
fastest spreading pandemic ever, and said tracking individual
cases was hopeless. But that hasn’t stopped Google and, now, GE Healthcare from trying.
Both companies claim to have “near real-time” data on flu activity, but their numbers are gathered from very different sources: Google Flu Trends tracks
H1N1 infections by counting the number of online searches for flu-related
topics, such as “fever” and “sore throat.” GE Health care’s figures come
from the more than 16,000 outpatient care centers using its electronic medical
system. So which one is better?
GE’s Centricity EMR system allows physicians to report flu infections
instantly, without having to fill out any extra forms. The company’s Medical Quality Improvement
Consortium program searches those records for flu-related diagnoses and
automatically converts them into anonymous daily reports for the CDC (the CDC
conducts its own H1N1 surveys through the Influenza-like Illness Surveillance
Program, but those reports are only submitted weekly). And in a win for GE, the CDC announced on October 28 that it would be incorporating the company’s EMR data into its
national H1N1 surveillance program.
Google Flu Trends, which is also updated daily, may be less medically accurate, but its geographic
range–20 countries so far–is hard to beat. One thing working in favor of Google’s data: Many people infected with the H1N1 flu won’t visit their doctor’s office since, as they
could learn from a quick Google search, the symptoms are generally mild and
prescription treatments such as Tamiflu are only recommended for vulnerable
populations. With no way to parse the people who are simply trying to find out about the flu from the people who are actually infected, Google Flu Trends remains a wholly un-scientific method of learning about the spread of H1N1.
According to the CDC’s most recent report, 672 Americans have died from
H1N1 the past two months alone, and 73 of those fatalities were children. And in the end, whether it’s coming from GE or Google, the more reliable data on H1N1 infections the CDC and you can get, the better.
[Images via GE Healthcare and Google]