Athenahealth Analytics Shows Early Uptick In Flu, Despite High Vaccination Rates

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Since the 2013 US federal government shutdown, Watertown, MA-based EHR vendor Athenahealth has been actively tracking and reporting on some of the same key population health statistics that the CDC is typically looked upon to monitor, such as flu rates and vaccination rates. The company started reporting the numbers in October 2013, which fell in the middle of the government shutdown and at the beginning of the 2013 flu season. With public health workers typically relying on CDC reports to monitor the spread of flu, Athena turned to its cloud-based EHR to provide location-based updates on the spread of flu across the nation.

Since its impromptu entrance into the pubic health reporting space, the CDC has returned to normal operations and is still by and large the most widely used and trusted source of flu tracking statistics in the US. However, because the CDC relies on confirmed flu cases to populate its reports, its data can sometimes lag behind the real-time spread of influenza. To provide a more time sensitive assessment, companies such as Google and Athena have created alternative tools. Google recently announced adjustments it was making within its Flu Trends platform, which will now begin pulling data from both the CDC and user data from the Google search engine. Athena is mining the data it needs to generate reports from its own cloud-based EHR. The company’s database processes nearly one million primary care visits per week. Data scientists at Athena are using this information to track vaccination rates at a regional level, and also to monitor influenza prevalence as the 2014 flu season approaches.

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This year, despite higher than normal vaccination rates, Athena’s report shows a sudden spike in flu prevalence starting last week. While national rates are still lower than those seen during the 2012-2013 Swine Flu epidemic, they are significantly higher than last years rates at this time, with some regions seeing near identical early spikes in flu prevalence as the 2012-2013 season. In the Midwest, where flu is spreading the fastest, flu totals are only a week behind the volumes seen during the 2012-2013 season. As a means for comparison, flu rates this high were not seen during last year’s flu season until we were five weeks deeper into the season.

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Google’s Flu Trends platform does not fully agree. The company uses keyword search terms that users enter into its search engine to monitor the spread of flu. While Flu Trends has come under fire in recent years over the accuracy of this approach, Google announced just prior to this year’s flu season that the tool had been reworked to incorporate CDC prevalence data in an attempt to improve the accuracy of its predictions. Unlike Athena, Google is tracking a relatively mild flu season thus far, mirroring last year’s season and falling far short of the rates seen during the 2012-2013 Swine Flu season.

Thus far, the CDC is still reporting low influenza activity nationally and regionally.


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