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Doctors Turn To the Web For Disease Tracking 57

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the intertoobs-fix-everything dept.
schliz writes "US researchers believe that data from sources including discussion forums and news websites can help them better cope with outbreaks of disease. The team from the Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School has launched an automated data-gathering system called HealthMap to collate, organize and disseminate this online intelligence. The team argues that online information can be hugely valuable to medical professionals by helping with early event detection. The data can also support 'situational awareness' by providing current and local information about outbreaks."
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Doctors Turn To the Web For Disease Tracking

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  • Responses? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by catbertscousin (770186) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @11:33AM (#24118441)
    So, if everyone on some large forum started talking about, say, measles, would the CDC show up at the server room and demand the names of the users so they can "contain the outbreak"?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by geekoid (135745)

      Your stretch at paranoia is unwanted.

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      Yeah, and all those people posting to music fora will be contained for the rocking pnuemonia and the boogie-woogie blues.
    • Re:Responses? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by philspear (1142299) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @11:51AM (#24118755)

      Measles? Probably not.

      Ebola or smallpox yes.

      I wiki'd smallpox and found out that in 2004, a librarian found an envelope from the civil war era marked "smallpox scabs" and the CDC showed up pretty quickly. So that shows 2 things
      1. The CDC would show up if you were bragging about having smallpox
      2. There were some sickos during the civil war. Saving smallpox scabs in an envelope?

      • by StikyPad (445176) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @01:00PM (#24119889) Homepage

        How is that substantially different than keeping a jar of nail clippings?

        Oh, you uh.. don't do that? Yeah.. me either. Sickos!

      • Good point. A discussion of Ebola would probably have already started some panic, though; it's better known than smallpox thanks to movies, even though smallpox is airborne and has a higher transmission rate. Provided people aren't handling the body/fluids.

        I think they're a little premature in claiming smallpox has been eradicated just because it hasn't shown up in half a century. Ebola disappears for a decade or so before popping up again.
      • Re:Responses? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by spasm (79260) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @11:53PM (#24129227) Homepage

        "2. There were some sickos during the civil war. Saving smallpox scabs in an envelope?"

        Grinding up smallpox scabs and jabbing them into your skin used to be how you inoculated people for smallpox [wikipedia.org] before the cowpox vaccination was invented/discovered. So collecting the scabs from people who had recently had it was a pretty common practice.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by zcnyu (1322671)
      Scary! But not too far-fetched. For measles, no. But for H51B? Yes. Remember the AIDS scare from the 80's? Apparently there was a blacklist somewhere in the halls of D.C. at the time. The technology now makes it far easier.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Scary! But not too far-fetched. For measles, no. But for H51B? Yes. Remember the AIDS scare from the 80's? Apparently there was a blacklist somewhere in the halls of D.C. at the time. The technology now makes it far easier.

        H51B? What's that, the dreaded Outsourcing Influenza?

  • Who'd of thunk (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CranberryKing (776846)
    Wow. They are using the world wide web for what it was designed for.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by philspear (1142299)

      Porn?

      Eww... not diseases in porn I hope.

      I want to cancel my subscription to the internet immediately if that's the case.

    • "Doctor, the system has found a nest of people who have contracted a bad case of 'OMGPONIZEEEEZ!!!'. It claims the only cure is to wave shiny objects around in their peripheral vision."

    • Re:Who'd of thunk (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @12:23PM (#24119239)

      At the clinic I go to, they have a browser set up in each office. (And it's password protected, so you can't surf while you're waiting in the room for a half hour.) The neurologist is always whirling around and Googling stuff during the appointment. If he suggests a drug and I've heard people bitching about its side effects, I tell him and he does a quick Google search before suggesting something else. My wife's doctor, OTOH, disregards her own complaints of drug side effects that she's experiencing, and refuses to change the prescription. "I've never heard of that." They could open a five minute med school [youtube.com] where they give you a 3G wireless Internet card, a DEA number, and then spend four minutes teaching you how to have an attitude.

  • Pandemics (Score:4, Informative)

    by Stooshie (993666) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @11:43AM (#24118613) Journal

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/larry_brilliant_wants_to_stop_pandemics.html [ted.com]

    The above talk is 26 minutes long and talks about using web activity monitoring to find possible outbreaks of pandemics before WHO.

    • Re:Pandemics (Score:4, Interesting)

      by zappepcs (820751) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @12:03PM (#24118895) Journal

      Wouldn't Google Trends do exactly this? By carefully crafting a set of queries, you should be able to see what country is looking the most of any number of disease related topics, including symptoms. I'm sure that some fine tuning of the algorithms would help, but it does not require personal information to find out what disease is of concern to local populations.

      Additionally, I'd like to see something about health information available on the Internet. I'd like to know what the incidence of sickness is during flu season and cold season etc. I don't care who has it, or how many times, but I would like to know what percentage of the local population is currently sick, what percentage of the sick are elderly/feeble/children/women/men etc.

      This is like a health weather report, and I think it would be most useful, despite the danger of collecting such information, and the problems inherent in trying to not track personal information tied to that health 'weather'.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by somersault (912633)

      Dr Who has a time machine. You can't find out any major world news before he does.

  • Actual site is http://www.healthmap.org/ [healthmap.org]

    Interestingly enough, the US-Country Tag is affected by a google feed from www.healthnews.com, which is about Hand Foot Mouth Disease decrease in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore?

    After playing around in the site for a while, I doubt its usefulness, but IANAD.

  • by zcnyu (1322671)

    This sounds like a reasonable solution. However I see some hurdles:
    1. random discussions that don't provide a lot of detail or relevant data
    2. discussions about historical events that generate lots of noise
    3. as mentioned previously, issues of privacy

    If someone is complaining about random symptoms on a discussion board, then receive a "complimentary" drug package in the mail from some big pharma company, it would just be too creepy.

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  • For those of you who may be considering a trip in an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, I suggest viewing this site: http://www.nemsis.org/ [nemsis.org] All EMS data in several states is already being collected. That includes diagnosis, treatment and disposition of patients. The data is then mined for statistical analysis for such activities as disease tracking and symptom trending.
  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @11:51AM (#24118749)

    Over the last three years, I have found the web to be superior to my doctors' knowledge.
    I have to gently ask them questions to guide them to thinking about the information or looking it up.
    I get the definite impression that the constraints insurance companies put on them or the stream of 16 patients a day causes them to overlook certain symptoms unless you highlight them.

    You have to be very careful about the information tho because
    a) some people are goofy.
    b) as medical companies are becoming aware of this they are putting propaganda out.
    c) you need to be aware if you are reasonable or a hypocondriac. I'm reasonable so this works. A person who is a hypocondriac would probably just make themselves fearful of a lot of stuff.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ibanezist00 (1306467)
      Over the last three years, I have found the web to be superior to my doctors' knowledge.

      I'd be very, very careful about the medical information you find on the web. A lot of it is antiquated and/or incorrect. I've had many doctors advise a lot of people about this. Example, my father got state-of-the-art prostate cancer treatment (it was minor, thank [deity of choice])that wasn't even documented on the web yet.

      Then again, who knows, they could be putting up a front because of what insurance and drug com
      • by Threni (635302)

        >> Over the last three years, I have found the web to be superior to my doctors' knowledge.

        > I'd be very, very careful about the medical information you find on the web. A lot of it is antiquated and/or incorrect. I've had many doctors advise a lot of people
        > about this.

        Let me guess - the same doctors whose knowledge is inferior to that found on the web?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by a_claudiu (814111)
      The web saved the life of my first kid.

      Seven years ago, one morning me and my wife rejoiced when pregnancy test turned positive. I left to work and my wife scheduled an appointment in a recently created private cabinet of a doctor recommended by my mother in law. (I'm from an ex-communist country and by that time this was new and considered better than public health care).

      At noon my wife is calling me, crying on the phone telling me that we need to plan an abortion. She was to the consultation and she r
    • You pointed out some caveats, and I agree that you can't just make a blanket statement about which is better, the Web or doctors. It looks like the Web has been able to help you more than your particular doctors. This would especially be the case if the doctors are not computer-savvy enough to look up things on the web.

      In general, I tend to enjoy my net-savvy patients more. They come prepared with background information, and they already have general knowledge about what I tell them. If they surprise me

      • by DrEasy (559739)

        Dude, I wish there were more docs like you... Do you want some e-patients? ;)

  • Flu (Score:4, Interesting)

    by zmooc (33175) <zmooc@NOSpaM.zmooc.net> on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @12:02PM (#24118879) Homepage

    In the Netherlands we've had something slightly related for years now: the "flu tracker". http://www.degrotegriepmeting.nl/ [degrotegriepmeting.nl]

    Currently there's no flu epidemic going on, but when there is, the maps shows really well how it spreads throughout the country.

    • This looks like the right way to do it -- anonymously (if I'm reading the Dutch right: "blijft gegarandeerd anoniem") self-reported incidents. Especially for something like the flu, where you can be fairly confident that you have it, even if you don't bother going to the doctor when you do.

      Nice contribution; thanks for the link.

    • by Yynatago (734843)
      So what does it look like when there is a major outbreak?
  • by Bazman (4849) on Wednesday July 09, 2008 @12:08PM (#24118997) Journal

    "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'." It's even worse when those anecdotes are culled from miscellaneous websites, unreliably geocoded, and possibly multiply reported.

    • by Madball (1319269)

      "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'." It's even worse when those anecdotes are culled from miscellaneous websites, unreliably geocoded, and possibly multiply reported.

      Exactly.

      While it may not be a bad way to find out what's going on in certain geographic areas, their "Heat" indicator is especially flawed. From their "About" link:

      Marker color represents a composite score based on the recency of alerts, the number of disease outbreaks, and the number of sources providing information at a particular location. Our algorithm applies an exponential weighting, yielding increased heat (redness) for more recent outbreak news.

      So, basically, the heat level is related to the amount of media coverage of disease-related events, not the severity or how widespread the issue is.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bob_calder (673103)

        It filters out noise. What you are thinking about doesn't happen because they thought of it back when the first one was written in Canada during the SARS respiratory outbreak that started in a hotel in Hong Kong. It scraped specific chinese websites and provided valuable data for the public health docs. They were able to confine it quickly as a result.

  • the web is definitely not going to get any disease- at least the transmitted ones.

  • My GP's been doing this for ages. Everytime I have a problem he's not sure about, he types the symptons into Google and clicks "I'm feeling lucky", which usually redirects him to Wikipedia...

  • There are a number of efforts around the county to do similar things. These include things like RODS Real-time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance http://rods.health.pitt.edu/ [pitt.edu], and the Environmental Public Health Tracking Program http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/tracking/ [cdc.gov].

  • For two things:

    a) provide tie-ins to doctors for uplinks of diseases

    b) allow people look up the names of those people with hiv.

  • Just one problem... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Vornzog (409419)

    There is just one problem with this - getting timely, reliable data.

    I work with flu, and the epidemiologists I know would love to have a system that could "facilitate early outbreak detection, increase public awareness of outbreaks prior to formal recognition, and provide an integrated and contextualised view of global health information."

    A few sites that should help do this for flu are coming online, but the biggest impediment is getting timely, reliable, geo-tagged data. The local physicians know that an

    • At this point they are happy to see a little ahead of the CDC reports. The next step will be clustering. But then there are privacy issues that will have to be protected in some way.

      I went to a symposium a couple of years ago on the one used for SARS but I was only interested in the network stuff. Input will probably be done by local public health - city or province but as you say, it will be slow for a while. Maybe a long time but it is a start.

  • You might be able to gauge media fear mongering quite well with this system.

    Great data for pharma marketeers, and insider trading, not that we want to encourage them...

  • "Doctors Turn To the Web For Disease Tracking" but my doctor doesn't even know how to use a computer. She does know a thing or two about the human body though.

  • My company had released a Google Maps based GPLed software to track diseases. The software is free as in free beer and free speech. You can check it out at - Web Based Health Monitoring System [zyxware.com]. The software allows hospitals and doctors to record cases as and when they are reported and then the system will collate the information and provide basic statistical analysis and geographical presentation on Google Maps. The source code is available on sourceforge and there is also a demo set up on the site.

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