Using electronic health records and Internet search information for accurate influenza forecasting

BMC Infect Dis. 2017 May 8;17(1):332. doi: 10.1186/s12879-017-2424-7.


Background: Accurate influenza activity forecasting helps public health officials prepare and allocate resources for unusual influenza activity. Traditional flu surveillance systems, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) influenza-like illnesses reports, lag behind real-time by one to 2 weeks, whereas information contained in cloud-based electronic health records (EHR) and in Internet users' search activity is typically available in near real-time. We present a method that combines the information from these two data sources with historical flu activity to produce national flu forecasts for the United States up to 4 weeks ahead of the publication of CDC's flu reports.

Methods: We extend a method originally designed to track flu using Google searches, named ARGO, to combine information from EHR and Internet searches with historical flu activities. Our regularized multivariate regression model dynamically selects the most appropriate variables for flu prediction every week. The model is assessed for the flu seasons within the time period 2013-2016 using multiple metrics including root mean squared error (RMSE).

Results: Our method reduces the RMSE of the publicly available alternative (Healthmap flutrends) method by 33, 20, 17 and 21%, for the four time horizons: real-time, one, two, and 3 weeks ahead, respectively. Such accuracy improvements are statistically significant at the 5% level. Our real-time estimates correctly identified the peak timing and magnitude of the studied flu seasons.

Conclusions: Our method significantly reduces the prediction error when compared to historical publicly available Internet-based prediction systems, demonstrating that: (1) the method to combine data sources is as important as data quality; (2) effectively extracting information from a cloud-based EHR and Internet search activity leads to accurate forecast of flu.

Keywords: Autoregression; Digital disease detection; Dynamic error reduction; Influenza-like illnesses reports; Validation test.

MeSH terms

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S.*
  • Electronic Health Records*
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology*
  • Internet
  • Population Surveillance / methods
  • Seasons
  • United States