Athenahealth Tracks Flu While CDC is Sidelined by Government Shutdown

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Watertown, MA-based athenahealth is stepping up to provide influenza tracking data to replace reports from the Centers for Disease Control, which furloughed 70 percent of its full-time workforce on October 1 and suspended its infectious disease tracking programs.

Athena will extract and publish influenza outbreak data from its own database. Its initial focus will include actionable items of the most value to frontline public health officials as they prepare for flu season, including influenza vaccination rates and geographical locations of where flu rates are spiking.

“The CDC normally provides weekly reports on flu activity across the country. This information is critical to effectively track outbreaks and encourage public vaccination. Every season is unpredictable. We hope the CDC is restored to full capacity as soon as possible. In the meantime we’ll leverage athenahealth’s cloud-based technology to report on disease patterns across our national network.” – Josh Gray, athenahealth’s vice president of research

By analyzing encounters with two million patients who had visited a primary care provider between August 1 and September 28, athena has been able to plot both the spread of influenza over time and the influenza vaccination rates nationally. So far, according to athena’s data, influenza rates are in roughly in line with last season, with one in 1,000 patients who visited their doctor this week receiving a diagnosis of influenza.

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Athena was able to pick up where the CDC left off so quickly because it maintains a single-instance database which houses all of its customers’ medical records, some 40 million in total. The company calls the data its most valuable resource after its clients and staff. For the last 12 years, athena customers have been charting their patient encounters within athena’s cloud-based ecosystem, gradually contributing to what has grown to be a massive and statistically representative dataset capable of providing both historical and real-time insights into health trends in the US.

Athena is not alone in its effort to extract national infectious disease trends in new and more responsive ways. They’re just first to publish it from a first-hand clinical data source with national representation. However, others have been working on innovative ways of predicting and responding to outbreaks with similar success.

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Google launched Google Flu Trends in 2004, predicting spikes in flu rates by identifying geo-located spikes in keyword searches that tipped them off to a pending outbreak. The algorithms proved so successful, despite having no connection to any public health data, that they made up the backbone of a program in Pakistan designed to contain dengue fever and minimize potential for transmission. In 2011, prior to the programs implementation, there were more than 16,000 confirmed cases of dengue and 352 deaths in Pakistan. In 2012, after the Google-based program was implemented, the total confirmed cases of Dengue dropped to 234 and there were no deaths.

Epidemiology research and big data analysis are converging within the private sector to improve infectious disease tracking, raising the question of whether the private sector can track illness better, faster, and perhaps cheaper than the $432 million annual price tag the CDC receives to fund its infectious disease tracking program.

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