Tracking internet searches for flu information may be more useful in helping hospital emergency rooms prepare for a surge in sick patients than relying on outdated government reports on flu cases, a new study suggests.

The study by a research team from Johns Hopkins Medicine is believed to be the first to show that Google Flu Trends data strongly correlates with an upswing in emergency room activity.

Google to get more personal

Google is sifting through the photos and commentary on its blossoming Google Plus social network so its internet search results can include more personal information.

The additional personal touches coming out Tuesday mark another step toward one of Google's most ambitious goals. The internet search leader eventually hopes to know enough about each of its users to tailor its results to fit the unique interests of each person looking for something.

Different people should start seeing different search results more frequently now that Google Inc. is importing content from its six-month-old Plus service, a product the company introduced  to counter the popularity of Facebook's online hangout and Twitter's short-messaging hub.

Google is tackling that challenge with an addition to its results called "Search, plus your world." The feature will be  automatically turned on beginning Tuesday for all English-language searches made by users logged into Google.

Turning off personal results permanently will require changing a setting in Google's personal preferences. The personal results can also be excluded on a search-by-search basis by clicking on an icon of the globe on the results page.

Associated Press

The study was published Monday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

For the study, researchers compared Google Flu Trends data — which tracks internet searches for flu information —  with information on the number of people seeking treatment for flu-like symptoms at the adult and pediatric emergency  departments at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., from January 2009 to October 2010.

Early warning system

The correlation between internet searches and patient volume was most pronounced for visits to the pediatric emergency room, said Dr. Richard Rothman, an emergency room physician and researcher at the John Hopkins University school of medicine.

Rothman said the results show promise for eventually developing a standard regional or national early warning system for frontline health-care workers.

Currently, hospitals rely on case reports provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the October-May flu season as a key way to track flu outbreaks.

Those reports are compiled using a combination of data about hospital admissions, laboratory test results and clinical symptoms. But they are often weeks old by the time hospitals get them and so don't allow frontline health-care workers enough time to prepare for a surge in flu cases, even as the flu is spreading in real time, Rothman said.

Google Flu Trends, on the other hand, collects and provides data on search traffic for flu information on a daily basis by detecting and analyzing certain flu-related search terms.