Despite privacy concerns, ‘Flu Trends’ a useful tool

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    In this age of ever-improving technology, people want fast, simple access to whatever they need. Why turn to an encyclopedia when there’s Encyclopedia.com? Or better yet, just Google it. Anyone with access to a computer can type keywords in the search window, click search and find billions of hits in mere seconds. These searches could even make for a healthier nation.

    Google’s new Web tool, Flu Trends, uses keyword searches in an innovative way to track health throughout the country. More specifically, it is a means to monitor the progress of flu outbreaks. Words such as “cold symptoms” and other terms related to the flu are used to calculate the trends. It may not provide the most accurate information, but using computer technology to help the country’s overall health and generate a better informed public is a good step. It brings trends of major disease outbreaks directly to the people who need it the most.

    For the skeptics in the crowd, making a query about diseases doesn’t necessarily mean that those individuals have them. It is very likely for people who are suffering a certain illness to search for information on the illness and how to treat it.

    According to a Nov. 14 New York Times blog by Miguel Helft, people aren’t just skeptical about the tool’s accuracy, but also about people’s privacy. The blog states the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Patient Privacy Rights wrote a letter to Google’s chief executive, explaining why it didn’t approve of the way the tool operates. The groups thought using people’s queries was a breach of one’s privacy.

    On the Google Flu Trends Web site, Google compares its findings with those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The site uses line graphs to show what times of the year occurrences of the flu was at its peak. Both organizations had similar patterns, but Google’s results were about one to two weeks faster in retrieving and publishing data than the CDC. Because the CDC’s trend reports depend on reported cases of the flu only, it takes longer to process data and publish it on the Web. Flu Trends can collect information as soon as the query is made.

    Patti Heaps, a nurse case manager for occupational medicine, said, “[Flu Trends] has the potential to be helpful in cutting down flu cases in a particular area and really push that people get the flu vaccine and get enough of the flu vaccine.”

    Heaps, who works for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., said the Web tool would be helpful to epidemiologists and the CDC in tracking outbreaks of disease in certain geographic areas in the United States and other developed countries. It could also tell physicians how much of the flu vaccine they will need to provide for those areas. However, she s