UPDATE 2-Athenahealth CEO steps down; company considers sale

(Adds analyst comment, share movement)

June 6 (Reuters) - Athenahealth Inc said on Wednesday Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Bush had stepped down and the healthcare software maker would explore options, including selling itself.

The company is in talks with third parties regarding a potential deal and the board has started looking for a replacement for Bush, it said.

Athenahealth's shares rose as much as 8 percent to $163.94 in early trading. Hedge fund Elliott Management in May proposed an offer of $160 per share in cash for the company, valuing it at about $6.9 billion.

"It is easy for me to see that the very things that made me useful to the company ... are now exactly the things that are in the way," Bush said in a statement.

Bush, a nephew of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, founded Athenahealth in 1997. The company has been under pressure from Elliott since it took a stake in the company last year.

The company has since cut jobs, hired former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt as chairman and named a new finance head. Immelt will now become executive chairman, the company said on Wednesday.

"The company's uneven performance over the past few years likely pushed Athenahealth's major shareholders to advocate for exploring strategic alternatives," Evercore ISI analyst Ross Muken said, adding that the company is unlikely to remain an independent entity.

Bush was in the news last week after he issued an apology following a report in U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper that he had assaulted his former wife 14 years ago.

AthenaHealth spokeswoman Victoria Gavaza declined to comment on the reason for Bush's departure.

Lazard and Centerview Partners are the company's financial advisers, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP is providing legal counsel. (Reporting by Manas Mishra and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru, Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)