It stands to reason that people who are "starting to come down with something" often take the opportunity to search for information on what ails them, even before they discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional. Who gets more of those searches than anyone? Google, of course.

When Google started looking more closely at anonymous aggregate searches for "flu symptoms" and the like, they discovered that - after cross-referencing that data against information from the Center for Disease Control - they had the ability to predict flu outbreaks by monitoring search patterns. And now, they've published their findings as Google Flu Trends.

The effort, part of Google's non-profit arm, google.org, could prove to be the first step toward the type of predictive medical informatics that have long been the Holy Grail of medicine:

"So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza."

Looking at the graphs, Google's hypotheses about search terms predating disease outbreaks seem to be proven correct. Not satisfied with Google's analysis? Feel free to download the data and work with it yourself.

Future Features for Google Heatlh

While influenza is the first target for the experiment, one can easily imagine the types of search data - and regional data - that could help healthcare professionals in the prediction of practically any disease. More importantly for Google, coupling this kind of anonymous aggregated data with other Google offerings could further the company's moves into the healthcare space.

Just imagine, in the not too distant future, if you could be warned of potential disease outbreaks in your city when logging into your personal health record on Google Health. It's not a huge intuitive leap, but it's a leap that puts the responsibility for health in the hands of the individual.

Helping people manage their wellness and health in a preventative way instead of simply treating the disease? That's a truly innovative - and much needed - way of approaching healthcare. Can Google leverage its wealth of data to help spark that healthcare innovation?

One would hope. Our health may depend on it.