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Patient Googling could flag disease epidemic

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The modern habit of patients consulting ‘Dr Google’ at the first sign of illness is sometimes bemoaned by the medical profession, but new research has shown that internet searches for an online diagnosis can provide early warning of an infectious disease epidemic.

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal, found that internet-based surveillance has been found to detect infectious diseases such as Dengue Fever and Influenza up to two weeks earlier than traditional surveillance methods.

But the study authors, from the University of Queensland’s School of Population, Health and State, led by Dr Gabriel Milinovich, warned that internet-based approaches do not have the capacity to replace traditional disease surveillance systems, and should be viewed as an extension of such systems, rather than an alternative.

Senior Research Fellow at QUT’s Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation, Dr Wenbiao Hu, was one of the paper’s authors.

He said there was often a lag time of two weeks before traditional surveillance methods could detect an emerging infectious disease.

“This is because traditional surveillance relies on the patient recognising the symptoms and seeking treatment before diagnosis, along with the time taken for health professionals to alert authorities through their health networks,” Dr Hu said.

“In contrast, digital surveillance can provide real-time detection of epidemics.”

Dr Hu said the study used digital surveillance through search engine algorithms such as Google Trends and Google Insights.

Using those online methods, the researchers concluded that it would have been possible to detect the 2005-06 avian influenza or ‘Bird Flu’ outbreak between one and two weeks earlier than official surveillance reports.

“In another example, a digital data collection network was found to be able to detect the SARS outbreak more than two months before the first publications by the World Health Organisation,” Dr Hu said.

“Early detection means early warning, and that can help reduce or contain an epidemic, as well as alert public health authorities to ensure risk management strategies such as the provision of adequate medication, are implemented.”

The study also found that social media, including Twitter and Facebook, could be effective in detecting disease outbreaks.

“There is the potential for digital technology to revolutionise emerging infectious disease surveillance,” Dr Hu said.

Dr Hu said the study had looked retrospectively at the effectiveness of digital surveillance systems, but Australia was well-placed to take the lead in developing a real-time infectious disease warning system.

“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,” he said.

The study found it was important that future research explore ways to apply internet-based surveillance systems on a global scale.

“The international nature of emerging infectious diseases combined with the globalisation of travel and trade, has increased the interconnectedness of all countries and means detecting, monitoring and controlling these diseases is a global concern,” Dr Hu said.

Debra Vermeer