The Internet is an elephant in that it never forgets. Ever wonder what comes of all that data from all of your online searches? Although some people don’t like the idea that search engines are paying attention to their online habits, the information from these searches lives on.

Increasingly powerful online tools make it possible to analyze all those individual pieces of data, and use them to create something surprisingly useful. In one such example, the “Annals of Emergency Medicine” recently published a study titled “Forecasting Emergency Department Visits Using Internet Data.”

Based on the work of Swedish researchers and doctors, this study found it may soon be possible to predict the number of a facility’s emergency room patients based on the volume of related, local Internet searches.

What the Study Found

Specifically, the researchers used Google Analytics to compare one year’s worth of web searches for the site of the Stockholm Health Care Guide (SHCG) with visits to the local emergency room during that same timeframe. In a conclusion that seems, in retrospect, like a no-brainer, they discovered there was “significant” correlation between the volume of visits to the SHCG site between 6 p.m. and midnight, and the number of emergency room patients the next day.

The next-day correlation wasn’t the only import information the paper noted.

“For this type of information to be useful, it is important that we be able to predict emergency department visits further into the future than the next day,” the paper’s lead author, Dr. Andreas Ekstrom, said.

Researchers found ER visits were highest on Mondays, lowest on weekends, and patient volume peaked at noon. The lowest patient volumes were on major holidays, a fact that matched the pattern of Internet searches as well. Data indicated that the Internet proved a valid predictor of ER visits not just for individual facilities, but also across geographic regions.

What’s That Mean to Me?

The ultimate objective of the study was to determine whether the Internet could be a useful tool for helping health care professionals reduce ER crowding. By better understanding trends related to past volume of patient visits, facilities can better assign doctors, nurses, and equipment by predicting when they’re most likely to be needed in the future. The benefits of that goal are obvious: better and more prompt care for those that need it. Toward, this end, the paper’s abstract concludes with the encouraging news that “The possibility of using Internet data to predict ED visits is promising.”

No one likes hospitals, but it looks as if every time we look up information on one, we might just be making the quality of our time and treatment there a little bit better for everyone. And whatever sequence of events it was that’s led you to researching local emergency rooms, we’re willing to bet that at that point, more than ever, you’ll appreciate the value of a high-speed Internet connection. That means you’d better start shopping for your new plan well before you start looking up the symptoms of Ebola, not after. What better time to start that search than now?

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