Lack of IT integration left public health officials swimming upstream

Research sharing related to Covid-19

Nearly two years ago, when Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink first heard about lockdowns in China from a new coronavirus, one of her first thoughts was that she needed to get the state’s lab to be able to share information with her epidemiology team.

“I knew if that wasn’t there, we were going to struggle,” she said during a discussion at HIMSS Digital.

Even with that foresight, and with the state’s efforts to bolster its IT systems, the fact that they often didn’t work together left her feeling like she was “swimming upstream” when Covid-19 hit the U.S.

“We literally had National Guard sitting in our lab space entering one positive lab into three different IT systems to make it work. We have a screaming room in our lab that says ‘screaming’ and it’s full of faxes that needed to be entered,” she said. “I had our epi team in tears as they were like, ‘I just can’t enter it fast enough, we don’t know what’s happening with the system and we don’t know what’s happening with the pandemic because I literally can’t enter it in.’”

For many other public health officials across the U.S., it was a similar story. The lack of integration made it difficult to paint a clear picture of what was happening in real time.

If there’s one silver lining, the pandemic made it clear that public health needed more support, particularly from an IT perspective. With public and private investment, they’re finally catching up, said Jonathan Weiner, founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Population Health Information Technology (CPHIT).

His role in responding to the pandemic was a little bit different. To fill the void of information in the early days of the pandemic, Johns Hopkins created its Covid-19 resources page, which quickly became a go-to source of information for many people.

That effort started with a collaboration with engineers from China, who offered to help out after they realized both regions were struggling with the same data shortage challenges, he said.

Having better information sharing between hospitals and public health will be critical for pandemic response going forward, and other pressing health concerns. For example, Zink, who is also a trained emergency physician, said if she could see in her hospital’s EMR that someone isn’t vaccinated, she can see if they missed their second dose or take the opportunity to reach out.

Another example: Her team was recently able to see from hospital emergency department data that heroin overdoses had been increasing. They were able to send messaging to clinicians to ensure emergency departments and EMS had Narcan kits on hand.

“If we have timely actionable data, we can move there more quickly,” she said. “Without good IT information exchanges, particularly on things like highly communicable infectious disease, we are left blind and left vulnerable.”

Photo credit: Ksenia Zvezdina, Getty Images

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