Health data, such as information contained in a patient’s electronic health record, is closely guarded to ensure privacy and compliance with HIPAA laws. However, in a recent study, researchers at the University of Texas-Austin found that the best predictor of how severe a flu season will be is health data collected by a companies that store patient information in electronic records. The researchers at UT looked at nearly 600 datasets that are typically used to develop influenza forecasts to see which were most accurate. They found that if data collected by for-profit healthcare companies (such as athenaHealth, which was used in their study) could be combined with data from the CDC, forecasts of how severe the illness might be and what doctors could expect to see in an upcoming season would be much more precise.
It’s problematic, however, to gain access to privately held data. Companies that provide cloud-based services to doctors would have to spend a lot of time and resources on stripping identifying information from the records as well as make sure they were in full compliance with privacy laws, which are very complicated. A partnership between private companies that maintain data and public agencies that track illness would be a game changer for predicting not only influenza but for other diseases as well, but many companies are not anxious to share information they are legally required to safeguard.