Online flu tracking yields hype epidemic

As much as any of us might be advocates of information technology, it's still worth questioning mass media infatuation with Google Flu Trends, the application that tracks web searches incorporating such terms as "flu symptoms" or "treatment for flu" to estimate disease spread.

"The benefit is that [online data tracking systems] rely not on hospital data, but on real-time information from people who are actually in the process of getting sick," according to a recent article in Time magazine.

Tracking those who conduct such searches seems to me a poor indicator of disease spread. In the biotech/IT equation that informs this e-newsletter, I want to believe that science and the rigorous scientific method rule the day, well supported by IT. Not vice versa.

People in my own home have recently conducted online searches using "flu" and related terms in part due to curiosity and in part (perhaps the larger part) due to hypochondria. No one was sick. We have taken the extreme measure of blocking WebMD on my teenage daughter's computer, after her repeated visits following the viewing of televised news reports or drug ads citing very general lists of symptoms.

She and many others, including adults, are likely to agree with the article's author that traditional disease-tracking systems "have many moving parts, relying on state, local and even community health-care workers to both recognize and report anything out of the ordinary... then investigate further by testing samples from the sick patients--a process that could take up to two weeks."

That's the scientific method in action, with centuries of bullet-proof results behind it.

The Time article--which is just one among many over-hyping the role of online tools in fighting disease--is most alarming because in 15 paragraphs of "gee-whiz, it's a whole new world" reporting, the scientific voice of reason is stifled by its placement in paragraph 14 ("...while systems like Google Flu Trends may be useful, health officials need to remember that the service tracks searches, not confirmed cases of illness or even symptoms that are severe enough to bring a person to the emergency room..."), only to be countered in the final paragraph.

I doubt it's really health officials who need to remember that Google tracks searches, not disease. It's the mass media that need the reminder, and perhaps another to show some restraint. - George