With statisticians from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention temporarily sidelined by the US government shutdown, an electronic health records company based in Watertown says it is stepping forward to track the spread of influenza and other infectious diseases.
Athenahealth Inc., which provides software to 44,000 doctors and hospitals across the country, will deploy its Internet database to monitor about 300,000 patients visiting primary care physicians weekly. On its website, www.athenahealth.com, the company will post related information — everything from the proportion of patients with the flu to the share that has received vaccinations.
The data can be used by medical professionals to determine when — and in what parts of the nation — a flu outbreak is spiking. That can encourage doctors to be prepared and patients to get vaccinated, said Josh Gray, athenahealth’s vice president of research.
“Like a lot of people, we were very disturbed when we learned the CDC had furloughed 68 percent of its workforce and suspended flu- monitoring activities,” Gray said Thursday. “Because we can monitor activity in real time, we thought we were in a position to help.”
CDC officials were forced to halt their influenza program, which tracks flu patterns. “CDC had to furlough 8,754 people,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, wrote in a tweet. “They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe.”
Barbara Reynolds, a CDC spokeswoman, said Thursday that she was not familiar with athenahealth or its research. Because of the furlough, she said, there was no one in the agency’s research staff to ask about the company’s initiative. But Reynolds said the CDC often works with outside researchers and uses their public health data.
“We welcome anyone who can crunch the numbers and share them with us,” she said. “We’re in the business of research as well as applied public health.”
‘Because we can monitor activity in real time, we thought we were in a position to help.’
Gray said athenahealth researchers tried to contact CDC officials about the company’s plans but had not heard back. He said the lack of communication was understandable, given the government shutdown.
Gray and members of his athenahealth research team stressed they were trying to provide a public service, not to make a political statement about the impact of the shutdown or the necessity of government services. They said the data athenahealth can offer, while useful, are less comprehensive and sophisticated than the CDC’s.
“Although it’s all too easy to take them for granted, CDC staff are the frontline sentinels (and gold standard) for monitoring disease outbreaks,” athenahealth analytics manager Matt Nix wrote in a blog post that included flu graphics compiled by his team.
Influenza is the initial focus of athenahealth’s monitoring. “In terms of the timing of the [CDC] furlough, we don’t think it could be worse,” said Iyue Sung, director of core analytics for athenahealth, who noted that flu outbreaks typically start in the early fall.
So far, rates of influenza and flu vaccinations are roughly in line with those of last year, according to the athenahealth data. Fewer than one of 1,000 patients who visited a doctor in the past week has been diagnosed with flu.
But the numbers are expected to rise.
If the government shutdown continues, athenahealth will expand monitoring to other communicable diseases. Toward that end, the company is reaching out to physicians and epidemiologists to determine other areas of medical interest.
“We’re technologists, not clinicians,” Gray said.
Athenahealth, which has been growing rapidly, has been trying to capitalize on its database to generate information that can be valuable to medical providers, Gray said. But the company has no plans to turn its data analysis into a business, he said.Robert Weisman
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