Aetna CEO: We Use Google to Track Flu Outbreaks

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When it comes to tracking the spread of the flu, Aetna has a lot at stake financially—and the U.S. managed health care giant says it’s using the Google Flu Trends index to get a jump on data that comes in more slowly from the CDC.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini told Fox Business Network Wednesday that his company “actually follows Google on a number of conditions, and flu is one of them.” (You can see the full interview below.)

“We watch not only the CDC data, we actually knew before the CDC report that the flu was going up because we watch Google. And Google searches actually about significant illnesses or procedures tend to drive or predict utilization,” said Bertolini, who was speaking to Fox Business from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Aetna’s use of Google’s flu tracker highlights the emergence of the search giant’s non-traditional methodology for getting an early read on certain medical situations as they’re emerging around the world.

Google Flu Trends is only four years old and it doesn’t rely on actual patient reports from doctor’s visits like the CDC does in making its flu activity assessments. Instead, Google mines its own search data to determine how many Internet users in certain geographical areas are looking for “terms that Google believes are likely indicators of the influenza virus,” as Slate’s Will Oremus noted a few weeks ago.

The upshot is that Google delivers real-time data on flu trends quicker than the CDC, which can take quite a bit longer to get the word out about an outbreak that’s growing in severity.

So in late December, Google Flu Trends already had North America awash in dark orange and red — the colors used to mark a region that’s experiencing a high or intense period of flu activity. The index pointed to the United States getting the worst of it and in the midst of a flu season even more severe than 2009′s H1N1 outbreak.

At the time, the most current information from the CDC pointed to another ho-hum flu season, but by mid-January the government agency was also warning of potentially the worst season in a decade.

According to Bertolini, the additional information from Google has helped Aetna to prepare itself financially for a big flu season that the CEO said now looks like may be on the downswing. Aetna figures the financial impact of the 2012-13 flu season won’t approach the cost of the H1N1 pandemic because the strain of influenza affecting most people appears to be fairly low-grade, he told Fox Business.

“We’re already starting to see a decline. … So we saw an early spike and we saw it go down,” Bertolini said. “Now the question is do we see a double spike or do we just see it start to plateau? So our normal flu season [costs us] $40 to $50 million, we planned for that this year, last year was $25 [million], so it is going to be somewhere between $50 and $100 [million] but far less than the $100 [million] we saw [in 2009].”


By Damon Poeter, PCMag


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