CDC official on hospital pandemic surveillance: 'Minimize manual processes'

The pandemic has made it clear that public health data must be accessible and supported across systems. But the question remains: How?
By Kat Jercich
03:21 PM
Two people wearing scrubs and masks at a computer

(Win McNamee, Getty Images)

A few months into the pandemic, the Trump administration announced a requirement for hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when reporting data about COVID-19 patients.

Many hospitals voiced concerns about the amount of labor this action required, especially at a time when resources were stretched thin.

But it also became clear that some kind of information tracking was necessary, particularly as different hot spots flared throughout the country.

At the annual meeting of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT this week, a variety of stakeholders weighed in on the ways that tech could be used to bolster responses to the ongoing pandemic – and in public health crises to come.  

"Our plans for hospital pandemic surveillance … are to pare down the data requirements and focus on priorities for the response," said Daniel Pollock, a medical epidemiologist and the surveillance branch chief in the CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.  

With a nod to the amount of work that reporting data points can entail – sometimes as many as 100 – Pollock said that the agency aimed to "minimize manual processes and to use as much data automation as we can."  

Pollock explained that the National Healthcare Safety Network plans to use standards for automating hospital pandemic data collection and reporting, with health systems providing standard measure reports and supplementary data to the NHSN, and the NHSN in turn providing data sets and dashboard to local, state and federal partners.

"Standardization of core elements is essential," said Pollock.  

John Loonsk, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that in an emergency situation, health IT can play a key role.

But, he pointed out, it needs "good data."

Historically, he said, public health surveillance was "opportunistic."  

Lab information systems and admission discharge and transfer systems became electronic early and offered public health entities some chance to map population-wide data.  

Now, he continued, there are electronic health records and there's electronic case reporting, both of which can serve real-time delivery of richer and deep clinical data. In one example of the eCR process, data in the EHR automatically triggers a case report that is validated and sent to the appropriate public health agencies.  

Loonsk noted that healthcare facilities are rapidly coming onboard to eCR during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 7,200 sending COVID-19 case reports using the technology as of mid-March.

eCR can reduce the clinician burden without disrupting the workflow, said Loonsk, while allowing public health agencies to more efficiently monitor the spread of disease.  

Overall, said Paul Matthews, chief technology officer at OCHIN, it's become clear that nationally uniform standards are critical for success and scalability when it comes to public health data reporting.  

"eCR provides a simple solution for delivery of required reporting at scale," said Matthews. At the same time, he said, "public health agencies need investment to utilize the data being delivered."


Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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John Fowler deputy information security officer Henry Ford Health System

John Fowler, deputy information security officer at Henry Ford Health System 
(Credit: Henry Ford Health System)

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