Your habit of Googling for a diagnosis may help detect an infectious disease epidemic. By searching your symptoms or even a specific type of illness, you are contributing data that may help stop an epidemic before it starts.
According to a new study, internet-based surveillance can detect infectious diseases, like Influenza, up to two weeks before traditional surveillance methods.
For example, researchers found that by looking at Google Trends and Google Insights, the Bird Flu outbreak in 2005-2006 could have been detected at least one week sooner. Essentially, digital surveillance allows for “real time” epidemic detection.
“Traditional surveillance relies on the patient recognizing the symptoms and seeking treatment before diagnosis, along with the time taken for health professionals to alert authorities through their health networks,” said Dr. Hu, Senior Research Fellow for the study.
Google isn’t the only thing online that could help predict future outbreaks of infectious disease. Social media could also play a key part in detection. “There is the potential for digital technology to revolutionize emerging infectious disease surveillance,” Dr. Hu said.
It’s not unusual for people to look up their symptoms online before going to a doctor. WebMD even offers a symptom-checking app for smart phones. Investigating what you have online is certainly cheaper than a visit to the doctor, and in many cases, can help you determine whether or not going to the doctor’s office is actually necessary.
Of course, if you have to ask whether or not you need to see a doctor, the answer is probably yes.
Online disease detection isn’t a perfect science yet, but Dr. Hu thinks that combining it with traditional practices can improve how we track and fight infectious disease outbreaks.
“The next step would be to combine the approaches currently available such as social media, aggregator websites and search engines, along with other factors such as climate and temperature, and develop a real-time infectious disease predictor.”