Are Americans headed for a rough flu season this winter? Two technology companies -- athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)-- just might be in the best position to answer the question, albeit from different vantage points.
Coughing up the answers
Athenahealth is uniquely qualified to render an opinion from physicians' perspectives. The company's cloud-based electronic health record supports 20,000 or so primary care providers in the U.S. who average around 1 million patient visits each week. Storing all this data allows athenahealth to quickly identify trends in diagnoses and treatments for Americans.
What is the data showing so far about how bad this flu season might be? Iyue Sung with athenahealth says that the rate of influenza-like illnesses is higher than the 2013-2014 season but not as high as that of the 2012-2013 season. Two groups appear to be experiencing the most incidences of flu are children (especially those in Southern states) and Midwestern adults.
Google takes a different approach. The company monitors the frequency of online searches for flu-related topics. Google acknowledges that not every person using flu-related search terms is necessarily sick. However, the results of Google's estimates over the last decade compared to actual numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show a quite high correlation.
While athenahealth's data shows that this flu season could be worse than last year, the trends from Google so far reflect a similar trajectory in flu-related searches for both seasons. However, like athenahealth, Google's data indicates that the 2014-2015 flu season is on track to be less severe than that of 2012-2013.
A state-by-state analysis also reveals that the Midwest and the South appear to be experiencing higher volumes of flu-related searches than other areas of the country. Louisiana has the highest estimated level of flu activity.
Nothing to sneeze at
Interesting information, but is it really useful? Some point to problems with Google over-estimating the actual number of flu cases in recent years. And there are many primary care providers who don't use athenahealth's EHR system, so the company's figures could also potentially not reflect the overall national flu trends.
However, the data from athenahealth and Google can help in early monitoring of flu trends -- especially when used in conjunction with other available data. And similar approaches could potentially be used for other diseases. This could allow healthcare professionals to be better prepared for outbreaks across the nation.
There are also some possibilities that could make investors' antennas rise. Companies with access to "Big Data" in the healthcare space are seeking to monetize their capabilities.
Athenahealth already uses its vast database to offer several services to its customers. CodeView allows physicians to compare their reimbursements at a procedure level against averages for other providers in the athenahealth network. PracticeVitals supports the same type of capability for other productivity statistics, including patient no-show rates and same-day closure rates for patient encounters.
Google is testing a service where users who search for medical conditions can immediately talk with a medical professional via video chat. This telemedicine service offers convenience and lower costs for patients -- and if the trial is successful, Google gains a new revenue stream.
Look for more of these types of initiatives in the future. While flu season comes and goes, the season for companies to innovate and increase shareholder returns is always with us.
Keith Speights has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Athenahealth and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.