Last year, in the midst of the government shutdown, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was left unable to monitor the movement of flu outbreaks in the country. While tracking the flu may not seem like such a major task, healthcare providers across the country rely on information from the CDC to know what to expect from the patient population in order to appropriately stock necessary supplies. To make matters worse, the shutdown occurred at the beginning of October, just about the time flu season was kicking into high gear.

To fill the void left by the CDC, athenahealth stepped in and used its resources to get the job done with the help of cloud computing. athenahealth, an electronic health record and billing management company, used its expansive online database to look at flu-related claims in real time in order to identify patterns regarding where outbreaks of the virus were occurring.

While there are other cloud-based services that perform a similar task, they often provide less precise information. Google Flu Trends, for instance, measures outbreaks based on flu-related searches in a certain area which can cause overestimates about the number of doctor's visits actually taking place. The results gathered by athenahealth's cloud database, on the other hand, were in line with previous CDC statistics, suggesting a high level of accuracy.

Cloud-based health initiatives gaining traction
Now that the shutdown is over, cloud-based tracking systems are still being utilized. This year, data gathered from electronic health records from across the country and stored in the cloud have made it possible for health professionals to see that early cases of the flu are beginning to occur more frequently. Because cloud-based data from EHRs tracks information collected during visits to the doctor, trends can be tracked on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis, allowing for a more accurate view of the trajectory of the virus. For instance, information gathered by athenahealth showed that patients visiting pediatricians that have been diagnosed with influenza-like illnesses increased almost 1 percent between Nov.9 and Nov.22.

A similar program by athenahealth subsidiary Epocrates was launched last year to provide doctors with important information about other kinds of health issues.  Called "bug+drugs," the program offers healthcare professionals a mobile app that uses de-identified patient data from the more than 43,000 providers using athenahealth's cloud-based software to help doctors identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like staph infections and E. coli, prevalent in their communities. The campaign is part of a larger effort to use the cloud to geo-locate specific health issues based on patients' ZIP codes.

While private, cloud-based healthcare companies aren't going to start taking over the job of the CDC, they are beginning to provide a larger number of services that benefit public health initiatives. Realizing the advantages of the help athenahealth provided while the CDC was unable to operate, the Ohio Department of Health now receives flu data from the company on a weekly basis. Other public health departments are utilizing the cloud to track the movements of diseases, and a variety of aid organizations in Africa are using the cloud to monitor the spread of the Ebola epidemic.