Health and Science

More than 1,800 people at risk of Zika in Florida targeted for testing, outreach

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Big data could help thwart the Zika threat from tiny mosquitoes.

A new data-driven effort is targeting 1,850 individuals particularly at risk for the Zika virus who have been identified as living in the small Miami neighborhood where federal health officials have warned that pregnant women, their partners and people thinking about having a baby should take particular steps if they live or travel through that area to avoid getting Zika from mosquitoes that have been transmitting the virus there.

The effort, which seeks to get those residents of the Wynwood neighborhood screened for Zika, is being spearheaded by , a large provider of network-enabled services and mobile applications for health-care providers.

Athenahealth tapped its massive database of patient health records to identify people at risk in that one-square-mile area.

The vast majority of those people, 1,382 women and men between the ages of 19 and 45, are patients of a single health-care provider, Borinquen Health Care Center of Miami Dade. Pregnant women are particularly at risk of Zika because the virus can cause serious birth defects, including abnormally small heads in babies.

Borinquen agreed to partner with Athenahealth to reach out to those people via emails and phone calls to urge them to get tested for Zika after the company notified Borinquen of the large number of its patients at risk.

"We serve a large population of pregnant or child-bearing women," said Dr. Diego Shmuels, Borinquen's director of quality and clinical practice management.

Shmuels said emails and regular mail to the identified individuals started being sent Wednesday.

"The call campaign and text messages will start tomorrow," said Shmuels. He praised Athenahealth for offering Borinquen, which is a federally qualified health-care center a chance to do highly targeted outreach that will augment Borinquen's existing Zika-related efforts.

"It's a great benefit to us," Shmuels said.

Another 254 people identified by Athenahealth are patients who are served by offices of Florida Woman Care, a network of ob/gyn practices.

Florida Woman Care also has partnered with Athenahealth to do outreach to those patients about Zika screening.

A third health provider has 64 patients at risk. In all 94 health-care providers were identified as having such patients, according to Athenahealth's data.

Before Athenahealth announced the effort Wednesday, none of 1,850 people identified as at risk had received Zika screening, according to the company's database. About two-thirds of those individuals identified are women.

Dr. Brian Anderson, senior clinical content manager at Athenahealth, said the outreach and screening that result from the initiative could reduce the number of complications seen from Zika, and in turn reduce medical costs. And, "I think that individuals will be making better decisions," including using contraception if they are at risk of Zika, he said.

Athenahealth said its Zika outreach effort is the first in what the company hopes will be an ongoing series of initiatives to mine the company's huge database for information about patients who could benefit from targeted information and intervention by health providers.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Anderson. He added that the data-crunching the company has already done on Zika in Miami leaves it well-positioned to do similar outreach efforts related to the virus elsewhere in the United States.

Athenahealth said the effort kicked off Monday after the unprecedented warning from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that advised pregnant women and their partners, and couples thinking about getting pregnant, to steer clear of the Wynwood neighborhood, or take steps to prevent mosquito bites, get screened for Zika and take other precautions.

That warning came after the CDC identified several cases of Zika being spread by mosquitoes in the small area, where more than 42,000 people live, according to the 2010 census. Statewide, 15 people in Florida have become infected from mosquitoes.

"A CDC travel advisory was sent out at 4 p.m." on Monday for Wynwood, said Anderson.

Anderson said he then reached out to his colleague, senior AthenaResearch associate Stewart Richardson, to search the company's database of more than 81 million patient records and 80,000 health providers.

"By 6:30 p.m., we had defined the patient cohort of ... women of child-bearing age and adult men" of the same age in Wynwood, Anderson said.

The 1,850 people identified in Athenahealth's database represent nearly 25 percent of all the patients the company has records for from that Wynwood neighborhood.

"We don't have records of any of these people having a [Zika] test," said Richardson.

Anderson said, "This is a population ... that likely needs to be screened for Zika."

When the duo realized that most of the identified people were patients of Borinquen, they reached out to the facility and spoke with Shmuels.

"Diego expressed an interest and willingness in partnering with us to reach out to these patients," Anderson said.

"This is the first time were partnering with specific groups in Florida with outreach to their patients," he said.

As part of the effort, Athenahealth is also going to have patient health records updated with the latest CDC guidelines about Zika, so that providers can educate their patients about the risks and preventive measures that can be taken.