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Doctors Turn To the Web For Disease Tracking

CmdrTaco posted more than 5 years ago | from the intertoobs-fix-everything dept.

Medicine 57

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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eat my shorts slashdot (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24118419)

Eat my shorts slashdot !!

SlashDot is Dying, The First Post Confirms It (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24118473)

If a eat my shorts can be the first post 10 minutes into the game, the game is over. The fat lady has sung. Now all we need is for netcraft to confirm it.

Responses? (4, Interesting)

catbertscousin (770186) | more than 5 years ago | (#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:Responses? (1)

oodaloop (1229816) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118597)

Yeah, and all those people posting to music fora will be contained for the rocking pnuemonia and the boogie-woogie blues.

Re:Responses? (5, Interesting)

philspear (1142299) | more than 5 years ago | (#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?

Re:Responses? (3, Funny)

StikyPad (445176) | more than 5 years ago | (#24119889)

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

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

Re:Responses? (1)

catbertscousin (770186) | more than 5 years ago | (#24128437)

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? (4, Insightful)

spasm (79260) | more than 5 years ago | (#24129227)

"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:Responses? (2, Informative)

zcnyu (1322671) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118799)

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:Responses? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24118961)

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?

Re:Responses? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24126719)

I work with the Healthmap team and I can say definitively NO. Healthmap does not collect any protected health information (PHI).

Many of us are "card carrying" EFF members.

Who'd of thunk (2, Interesting)

CranberryKing (776846) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118527)

Wow. They are using the world wide web for what it was designed for.

Re:Who'd of thunk (2, Funny)

philspear (1142299) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118657)


Eww... not diseases in porn I hope.

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

Re:Who'd of thunk (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118851)

"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:Waving shiny objects (5, Funny)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#24119275)

That's the best euphemism I have ever heard for hitting someone upside the head with an aluminum baseball bat.

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

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:Who'd of thunk (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24127609)

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.

Not that google isn't useful, but if my neurologist wasn't familiar with the side effects of the drugs he prescribes, I would look for another neurologist. For those very rare drugs, how about looking in an actual real drug reference instead?

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."

Not knowing the medical specifics, it is possible that what she is experiencing isn't caused by drug therapy.

Many drugs do have side effects, some of them serious. Denying that side effects exist is different from saying that the benefits of the drug outweigh the side effects.

Go lookup the drug monograph. This is a document that lists all sorts of things about a particular drug, including side effects. If the physician isn't aware of common side effects of the drugs they prescribe, I would question their competence. If they deny the side effects, take out the monograph and say "isn't it odd that the drug manufacturer lists this side effect that I am experiencing. Maybe some CME is in order?"

CME = Continuing Medical Education

Re:Who'd of thunk (1)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 5 years ago | (#24134139)

Not that google isn't useful, but if my neurologist wasn't familiar with the side effects of the drugs he prescribes, I would look for another neurologist. For those very rare drugs, how about looking in an actual real drug reference instead?

Many of these drug side effects are unknown or recently discovered and aren't in the drug references, which are derived from patient reports anyway.

Not knowing the medical specifics, it is possible that what she is experiencing isn't caused by drug therapy.

But knowing the medical specifics, it is impossible.

Not really groundbreaking, but good (2, Insightful)

Taco Meat (1104291) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118529)

One of the original purposes of the ARPANET was so that researchers could share information. This is just the web being used as it was originally designed. I say this is good news, cause it shows that while the web has obviously grown, it is still useful for the original purpose. I guess they'll just have to make sure they properly authenticate posters.

Pandemics (3, Informative)

Stooshie (993666) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118613)

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 (3, Interesting)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118895)

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:Pandemics (2, Funny)

somersault (912633) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118977)

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

Re:Pandemics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24128467)

Actually he's referred to as The Doctor, and you could find out major world news before him if it wasn't supposed to happen. For example, well, almost every episode. Just offering my two cents worth.

Re:Pandemics (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 5 years ago | (#24131415)

But then if he finds out and travels back in time, he technically knows before you do :P Who is he to say what is 'supposed' to happen anyhow..

It's got a ways to go... (2, Informative)

Madball (1319269) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118621)

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.

Data mining headaches (2, Insightful)

zcnyu (1322671) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118721)

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.

Ever experience flaming or trolling online?
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NEMSIS does some of this nationally (2, Interesting)

taliesinangelus (655700) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118737)

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.

Web Doctors *with* caveats (3, Interesting)

Maxo-Texas (864189) | more than 5 years ago | (#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:Web Doctors *with* caveats (3, Insightful)

ibanezist00 (1306467) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118899)

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 companies have told them...

Re:Web Doctors *with* caveats (1)

Threni (635302) | more than 5 years ago | (#24122481)

>> 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:Web Doctors *with* caveats (2, Interesting)

a_claudiu (814111) | more than 5 years ago | (#24120479)

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 remembered that had a lungs radiography one week before and she asked what are the risks if any for the kid. The doctor said nobody knows for sure the risks of radiation on fetus but in this case she will recommend an abortion (it was "soon" after the communist years when the abortion was prohibited and most of her customers just wanted an abortion). She even planned an abortion for the next week.

When I heard about this I started to search desperate over the internet about radiation and pregnancy and found the amount of radiation (especially lungs) to be negligible for affecting the pregnancy. I've gone to place where the radiography was made to find the type of machine (an old russian one) to see if was having problems or the possibility of malfunctioning.

I gone to her together with my wife with the printed pages trying to find out if I understood wrong the information (I'm no doctor) and evaluate the risks of pregnancy. She started to babble about her experience and if we decide to have the kid is our responsibility not her.

After this we gone to another doctor (one teaching at university) that told us in short: the other common risks of pregnancy are much bigger than a simple radiography and if we really want a kid we should go for it.

In the end we had the kid, a boy, no problems at all, at 7 years old is promising to become a geek also. Now that I remember it I want to go to that doctor again to show her the kid she wanted to kill because of her ignorance. If I remember well the amount of radiation for two lungs radiography was 0.2 rads (less than a tooth radiography) when the dose considered risky for a fetus was 2 rads. Also the price of a permanent internet connection of 36Kbit for companies was costing 100$/month.

Doctors need to use the web, too (2, Insightful)

KWTm (808824) | more than 5 years ago | (#24122275)

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 with something I'm not that familiar with (e.g "Hey, doc, what do you know about Horrible Disease X?" "Well, er, let me think ..." "Anyway, I looked it up already, and it says that you treat it with Ugali-bugali-mycin. Isn't that right?"), then I will simply admit that I don't know, and that I would like a chance to look it up as well. You do have to be humble, and not bristle at the concept that the patient might know more than you --there's no shame in that, especially if it's not your specialty.

I, too, will use the web to look stuff up. (I generally don't do it in the patient room because, although our clinic does have computers installed there, they run IE, and I'm much more adept at the Firefox that I've secretly install in my own office desktop, complete with NoScript and Adblock.) I will tell the patient to wait while I look it up, or even that I want a few days to check, and phone them back.

I find that, all things being equal, doctors have the advantage over patients in checking for info on the Web. (No surprise there.) Not only do I have access to websites not available to the general public (e.g. my clinic pays for access to Up-To-Date, Medline, etc.), but even on web sites that my patients can access, I am better able to zero in on the needed info, pass it through my Filter of Common Sense, and interpret it in the context of the patient. Where you have the patient being superior is where the patient has done the homework, and the doctor has note.

So, in general, if the doctor keeps an open mind, s/he can benefit from patients who educate themselves on the Internet. My general advice to patients is also to keep an open mind --it could very well be that the web info is inaccurate and your doctor is right.

Re:Doctors need to use the web, too (1)

DrEasy (559739) | more than 5 years ago | (#24144349)

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

people turn to creators for nazi disempowerment (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24118803)

your assistance would help. see you there? the lights are coming up all over now. conspiracy theorists are being vindicated. some might choose a tin umbrella to go with their hats. the fairytail is winding down now. let your conscience be yOUR guide. you can be more helpful than you might have imagined. there are still some choices. if they do not suit you, consider the likely results of continuing to follow the corepirate nazi hypenosys story LIEn, whereas anything of relevance is replaced almost instantly with pr ?firm? scriptdead mindphuking propaganda or 'celebrity' trivia 'foam'. meanwhile; don't forget to get a little more oxygen on yOUR brain, & look up in the sky from time to time, starting early in the day. there's lots going on up there.


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dictator style micro management has never worked (for very long). it's an illness. tie that with life0cidal aggression & softwar gangster style bullying, & what do we have? a greed/fear/ego based recipe for disaster. meanwhile, you can help to stop the bleeding (loss of life & limb);


the bleeding must be stopped before any healing can begin. jailing a couple of corepirate nazi hired goons would send a clear message to the rest of the world from US. any truthful look at the 'scorecard' would reveal that we are a society in decline/deep doo-doo, despite all of the scriptdead pr ?firm? generated drum beating & flag waving propaganda that we are constantly bombarded with. is it time to get real yet? please consider carefully ALL of yOUR other 'options'. the creators will prevail. as it has always been.

corepirate nazi execrable costs outweigh benefits
(Score:-)mynuts won, the king is a fink)
by ourselves on everyday 24/7

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whilst demanding/extorting billions to paint more targets on the bigger kids;


& pretending that it isn't happening here;

all is not lost/forgotten/forgiven

(yOUR elected) president al gore (deciding not to wait for the much anticipated 'lonesome al answers yOUR questions' interview here on /.) continues to attempt to shed some light on yOUR foibles. talk about reverse polarity;


Flu (3, Interesting)

zmooc (33175) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118879)

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.

Re:Flu (1)

Roberticus (1237374) | more than 5 years ago | (#24119561)

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.

Statisticians have a saying... (4, Insightful)

Bazman (4849) | more than 5 years ago | (#24118997)

"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.

Re:Statisticians have a saying... (1)

Madball (1319269) | more than 5 years ago | (#24119725)

"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.


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:Statisticians have a saying... (2, Interesting)

bob_calder (673103) | more than 5 years ago | (#24126569)

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.

Anyone who spends all of their time on (1)

LM741N (258038) | more than 5 years ago | (#24119249)

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

GP (1)

Rik Sweeney (471717) | more than 5 years ago | (#24120077)

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...

Not applicable to all fields of medicine (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24120201)

I just hope my proctologist doesn't visit goatse!

Similar Projects (1)

xlation (228159) | more than 5 years ago | (#24120321)

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].


Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24120497)

First of I'll say that scabies in not an STI. It is transmitted via direct skin contact with an infected person. If you do the dirty with an infected person you basically have no hope of avoiding an infection.

Doctors are not required to report a scabies infection to any authority or organization.

As a recent host to the Sarcoptes scabiei ectoparasite I do understand first hand that some medical issues are not covered adequately in many doctor's trainings.

There are a large number of current threads going on from a number of forum sites, like topix, which exemplify the issue.

Some people on the forums report being misdiagnosed for months and even years by multiple different doctors.

A tool like this could server to raise awareness for issues exactly like TEH SCABIES. If there is a high level of 'noise' coming from a certain zip code then CDC can send out information to qualified health professionals which will put symptoms to look out for fresh in their minds with an associated diagnosis.

I only wish I thought of this first so I could make it a distributed open sourced SETI-like screen saver app. I don't know how the hell they are gonna confirm the physical locations of the posters though...

A national system necessary... (1)

tjstork (137384) | more than 5 years ago | (#24120641)

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... (2, Interesting)

Vornzog (409419) | more than 5 years ago | (#24121083)

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 outbreak is starting, but it takes a while for samples to filter up to the state and country levels, be reliably analyzed, and then be uploaded to a tracking website.

While better websites will help in this process, the bottleneck occurs much earlier in the process. Samples come trickling in from third-world countries months after they were collected (or sometimes after the flu season is over!) and they might have the name of a city associated with them. That's not much help when you have to pick next season's vaccine halfway through this season so that it'll be ready in time.

And don't think that asking the local physicians to use a website is going to help - not for flu or any other disease. Most of the time, you are likely to get a hand-written sheet, partially filled out, with five or six columns of basic information for each sample. They don't have time to do any more then that.

Sure, the pandemic threats get a bit more attention, but the seasonal stuff still kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. You want to help? Start with those third-world clinics. For most diseases, the CDC and WHO still have to get people out on location to do good surveillance, and a website just isn't going to change that.

Re:Just one problem... (1)

bob_calder (673103) | more than 5 years ago | (#24127405)

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.

Gauge fear (1)

darekana (205478) | more than 5 years ago | (#24127157)

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...

Like everything, not for everyone. (1)

sveard (1076275) | more than 5 years ago | (#24128007)

"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.

GPL software based on Google maps to track disease (1)

anoopjohn (992771) | more than 5 years ago | (#24131471)

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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