In early 2011, North Carolina took steps to build a system that could potentially identify early indicators of health threats and diseases before they became full-fledged epidemics.

The North Carolina Bio-Preparedness Collaborative analyzed data -- from emergency room visits, tainted food reports, veterinary visits and more --  to try to understand past emergency patterns so they could better predict and control future outbreaks.

But now, a new study indicates that instead of using hospital records, researchers are gathering data using Internet trends.

A new study published by Lancet Infectious Disease notes that googling for a diagnosis before visiting a doctor provides information that can be used to give early warning of an epidemic.

In the paper, Internet-based surveillance has detected infectious diseases like influenza up to two weeks earlier than traditional methods. QUT Senior Research Fellow Dr. Wenbiao Hu, who also is senior author of the paper, says the lag time seen with traditional surveillance methods can be bypassed by using the Internet as another source of information. Spikes in health-related Internet searches can now be seen to accurately predict outbreaks of that disease.

“Traditional surveillance relies on the patient recognizing the symptoms and seeking treatment before diagnosis, along with the time taken for health professionals to alert authorities through their health networks," Hu said in a press release. "In contrast, digital surveillance can provide real-time detection of epidemics."

Hu said the study used digital surveillance through search engine algorithms like Google Trends and Google Insights to detect trends and relate those to outbreaks. “A digital data collection network was found to be able to detect the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] outbreak more than two months before the first publications by the World Health Organization (WHO)," he said.

Hu also discussed how this outbreak detection system could be applied on a global scale.

"The international nature of emerging infectious diseases combined with the globalization of travel and trade have increased the interconnectedness of all countries, and means detecting, monitoring and controlling these diseases is a global concern,” he said.