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Analytical Perspective: EHR and Drug Reference Data Reveals Late-Blooming Allergy Trends

by Iyue Sung, PhD, Director of athenaResearch

Three months ago, when we officially welcomed our new colleagues from Epocrates to the athenahealth family, the Cloud Analytics team had one recurring thought: Cool, more data! And plenty of it, considering Epocrates is the most widely used medical mobile app by caregivers. Just as our claims and electronic health record (EHR) data accurately reflected this past winter’s early flu season, Epocrates’ drug and disease lookup records can illustrate the health care issues that physicians and their patients are facing today.

Since May was National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, we couldn't resist the chance to compare Epocrates and athenahealth data to detect whether trends in allergy drug look-ups followed similar patterns as our data on allergy-related visits to primary care providers (PCPs). Recent news reports positioned 2013’s allergy season as the worst ever. Even worse than last year?

To answer that question, we compared the number of Allergic Rhinitis diagnoses from 2012 and 2013, from primary care physicians (PCPs) on athenaClinicals, our cloud-based EHR network. We also worked with our friends at Epocrates to see how often providers searched for information about seasonal allergy drugs. Would the two completely separate data sources tell a similar story?

The answer? Mostly and yes!

Here’s what we found, with athenahealth EHR data and Epocrates data side-by-side (note: all May 2013 data was up-to-date as of this writing):

1. In the western U.S., allergies were far more severe in March and April of this year compared to last year. As you can see in this pair of charts and the others, the Epocrates lookup data and the actual incidence of allergy-related PCP visits are highly correlated. The good news: it looks like allergies in the West are back down to normal May levels:

athenahealth – Seasonal Allergy Encounters as Percent of Total PCP Encounters in the West Epocrates – Seasonal Allergy Drug Lookups as Percent of Total Lookups in the West

2. The Midwest and Northeast regions of the country experienced levels below 2012 until May—and then the pattern flipped, with May’s peak surpassing all months from last year. One insight the data doesn’t tell us: are these parts of the country in the clear at this point, or is the worst of the allergy season yet to come?

athenahealth – Seasonal Allergy Encounters as Percent of Total PCP Encounters in Northeast + Midwest Epocrates – Seasonal Allergy Drug Lookups as Percent of Total Lookups in Northeast + Midwest

3. In the South, typically the U.S. region with the worst seasonal allergies, it’s looking like a fairly normal (meaning relatively severe) year for allergies. However, according to our May data, there’s also evidence of a prolonged allergy season:

athenahealth – Seasonal Allergy Encounters as Percent of Total PCP Encounters in the South Epocrates – Seasonal Allergy Drug Lookups as Percent of Total Lookups in the South

4. Finally, to our map: Based on our athenaClinicals data, 26 states (in red) have already surpassed last year’s peak allergy level. If you’re an allergy sufferer in any of the pink states, consider yourself lucky!

26 States (in Red) Have Surpassed Last Year’s Peak Allergy Level

One of the great by-products of athenahealth’s growth is the ability to tap into our data in ways that are fun and informative. From the perspective of performance reporting and disease surveillance, athenahealth functions much as a single large medical group might. And because we’re cloud-based, we can access this data on a near real-time basis.

Having a current, national view of the health of the population, and the drugs that health care professionals most often inquire about, will allow us to “triangulate” on patterns and gain greater insight into more aspects of the health of the U.S. population.

We’re only at the beginning of this journey—please comment below or drop me a line about what you would like to see next! (Read Dr. Anne Meneghetti's clinical perspective on these late-blooming allergy trends.)

As a statistician, Iyue is responsible for methodology, analytic infrastructure, and extracting data-driven insights from the athenahealth patient database. 

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