The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Who is Sick?

Who is Sick?

Health and Wellness

May 29, 2007

Who is Sick?

When the person next to you sneezes, do you wonder if you're next? The CDC reports that approximately five percent to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu each year, and that more than 200,000 persons are hospitalized for flu-related complications. So it makes sense that we're curious about our health, especially when, according to a University of Michigan study, the total economic impact of cold-related work loss in the U.S. exceeds $20 billion.

But before you run for that bottle of vitamin C, you might want to pay a visit Launched in March of this year, Who Is Sick offers current and local sickness updates to the public by enabling people to log on and share facts about their health. Unlike the CDC's influenza report, which supplies weekly statistics on flu outbreaks by state, Who Is Sick provides a more localized and instantaneous forum for disseminating health information. This is the kind of information that founder PT Lee was looking for when his wife fell ill on an out-of-town vacation.

"When my wife doubled over in pain, we did what anyone in our position would do - we went to the emergency room. And after waiting for hours to see a doctor, we were told in less than four minutes that 'there was something going around'. At that point I realized that there was no efficient, centralized way of getting this type of information without calling every hospital in the area," says Lee. "I still may have gone to the emergency room, but armed with a sickness tracking tool, I would've been more informed and prepared."

Using the Google Maps interface, Who Is Sick participants can anonymously post their symptoms by zip code in six major categories - runny nose, cough, fever, headache, muscle ache and stomachache. Those with more serious conditions, like chicken pox or food poisoning, have an option to go into more detail. Illnesses can be tracked by gender, age and location, allowing users to follow trends across populations and areas. Interestingly, about 40 percent of postings come from international locations, some as far reaching as Australia, Thailand and even Zimbabwe.

With about 200,000 visits to the site since their inception, and about 20,000 total sickness postings, Lee expects the numbers to continue climbing in the weeks and months to come. When asked how the site became so popular in such a short amount of time, especially with no advertising, Lee points to the power and pervasiveness of user-generated content on the Internet.

"As a rule, patients have always found large health organizations to be intimidating and somewhat closed off to information-sharing. This site puts some power back into the hands of the public, by including them in the research process. Who Is Sick is the only source on the Internet where you can plug in your zip code and find out in real time who has what and what's being done about it," he says.

Although user-generated content will always have some level of inaccuracy, Lee says that at the higher level, trends tend to be fairly precise. To prevent pranksters from creating potential health scares, Who Is Sick limits the number of postings a user can make in a given day, and also monitors spam, and bans participants that repeatedly supply exaggerated or false claims. In addition, Who Is Sick is not designed as a substitute for professional medical diagnosis (this is clearly labeled on the site), but instead as a venue for sharing symptoms, Lee says, from the 'wisdom of the crowd'.

"We made a very specific decision to keep the site symptom-based. We're not a hospital. We provide the what, and let the doctors provide the why."

Currently, more features are being developed to beef up the interactive nature of the site. Future upgrades include a "sickness heat map" that views postings regionally with color-coding (much in the same way that a weather map color codes temperatures), enhanced discussion boards, and widgets - to extend the real time reach of the site to other web pages. Roll out of these improvements are expected within the next few months - well before the next flu season rears its ugly, congested head.

"We hope that we can eventually help places like the CDC provide a more accurate picture of what is going on a local and even more global scale through this type of personal, supplemental information-sharing," he adds. "We all want to stay healthy."