Sometimes, the numbers just don’t add up. How can a city with a population of 125,000 have 156,598 incidences of the flu reported – in just one week? That question was posed, in a letter to the editor published in the Hartford Courant, by H. Wayne Carver, Connecticut’s former Chief Medical Examiner. Carver noticed a full page ad in the newspaper which ran on Christmas Day, asserting the number of flu incidences “reported in Hartford.” That ad ran again on New Year’s Day and Sunday, January 4, promoting Puff’s tissues, and offering a 25 cent coupon to "soften the blow.” Puffs is a product of Procter & Gamble.
A visit to the Puffs website reveals a national interactive map which can provide the incidence flu merely by typing in the name of a town or zip code. The result for Hartford? “Current cold and flu levels in HARTFORD are MILD. Mild means that 3% to 8% of the population is sick.” One does not need to be a math major to determine that 8 percent of 125,000 is not 156,598. And for a city of 125,000, how can this statement, on the Puffs facebook page, be accurate: "FYI, Hartford. 156,598* of you have the flu."
So, where did the numbers come from? The small print in the ad cites ”FAN Data, IMS Health, Affected Population in Hartford for Week Ending Saturday, December 6, 2014.”
IMS Health is a Danbury-based global company that provides information, services and technology for the healthcare industry. IMS’s Flu Activity Notification (FAN) program is, according to the company website, “a comprehensive program that measures the total affected population with upper respiratory illness at the national level down to 135 markets.”
Within the past week, spurred by new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increases in flu incidence around the nation, including Connecticut, have been reported. The state Department of Public Health (DPH) reports a total of 444 positive influenza reports for the current season. Influenza was reported in all eight Connecticut counties: New Haven (141 reports), Fairfield (137), Hartford (68), Litchfield (30), New London (24), Middlesex (22), Windham (13), and Tolland County (9).
According to the CDC, widespread influenza activity was reported by 36 states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, in addition to Connecticut. As of last week, a total of 180 hospitalized patients with laboratory-confirmed influenza have been reported in Connecticut, DPH data indicates, with 19 associated with Type A (H3N2) influenza, 153 with Type A (subtype unspecified), and 8 with Type B. No flu-associated deaths have been reported to date in Connecticut, although the CDC reports more than a dozen deaths nationwide.
Public health numbers and marketing numbers are vastly different, with DPH reporting that “Connecticut influenza activity has been increasing during the last several weeks," but at levels in the hundreds statewide, not tens of thousands in a single city. Advertisements for Puffs tissues in other major markets include these triple-digit numbers: 904,564 in Philadelphia, 369,631 in Detroit, 132,047 in Milwaukee, 157,298 in Kansas City and 348,801 in Columbus
“FAN provides critical status levels for each regional market area, reflecting seasonal severity and potential spread rate of illness throughout the season. With consumers only purchasing cough-cold and flu-related products when afflicted, this data is vital for maximizing ROI on promotions, marketing, product placement, and supply chain. The FAN program offers retailer-specific reporting as well, designed to each retailer’s specific trading area and distribution network,” the IMS website indicates.
The website goes on to explain that “For today's consumers, managing health is often a do-it-yourself project. IMS Health provides the most in-depth and reliable information and tools available to monitor health and make informed decisions about care.”
Founded in 1954, Danbury, Connecticut-based IMS is now the largest vendor of U.S. physician prescribing data, according to the company’s website. IMS pays pharmacies for anonymized prescription data, which it sells to drug makers curious about individual doctors’ prescribing habits.
IMS Health Global Headquarters remain in Danbury, at 83 Wooster Heights Road. The company website lists more than two dozen locations throughout the United States and in Canada, Japan, China, Latin America, Asia Pacific, North Europe and Africa, South Europe and the Middle East, Central Europe and Eastern Europe.
Company President Ari Bousbib points to IMS Health’s 10,000 professionals as their “most valuable asset. They include clinicians, epidemiologists, technologists, software engineers, data scientists, health informatics specialists and services experts—all with a deep understanding of customers and local markets around the world.”
The company does consulting work and trend analysis of the drug business. That portion of the company is growing faster than its data business, driving the 4.1 percent increase in the company’s total revenue last year, according to published reports. IMS Health became a public company last April, following four years as a private company. As a corporation, IMS Health has made support for cancer prevention, treatment and research a focus of corporate philanthropy efforts. That support has included major contributions to the Connecticut-based Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, for children with cancer.