Thursday, December 10, 2009

How Google is Changing the World (and improving health)

I recently became a member of the Trustee Advisory Council of the Massachusetts Hospital Association.  The Council is made up mostly of trustees of hospitals in the state (I am a rare exception) to provide valuable advice and input to the MHA from a trustee's perspective.  Today, as part of my responsibility to the Council, I attended the 30th Annual NEHA Trustees conference for hospital trustees throughout New England.  The keynote address was given by a guy named Ron Galloway, a columnist and director of the documentary film rebooting healthcare.  His talk was entitled The Top 12 Trends Shaping Healthcare.  He focused on technology and its possibilities in driving greater efficiencies and improving health.  He gave many fascinating examples, including what Google is now doing to help researchers and the public better identify health information and trends.  It turns out that by collecting data on certain search queries by Google users in a particular region, Google can actually predict flu outbrakes as well as - and perhaps even better than - our public health agencies.  If you are interested, check out the site called Google Flu trends and see for yourself.  Here is how Google describes it:

"We've found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity."

The table below - taken right from the site - shows Google estimates (in blue) of flu activity around the world based solely on user queries in a particular region.  This is superimposed over official flu estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  What is amazing is how similar they are.  What's more, by updating its data every day, Google can actually serve as a far better early warning system for public health outbreaks than the CDC, which updates its data once per week.  Pretty unbelievable, isn't it?  Imagine the possibilities! 

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