A zoom lens for biosurveillance

By Peter Buxbaum
01:51 PM

Protecting the health and welfare of military veterans is the primary aim of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But making good on that mission is more than providing clinical services, hospital beds and pharmaceuticals to the sick and infirm. It also means knocking down health threats with sophisticated biosurveillance systems used to track diseases and infections.

From a national perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also seek to monitor potential outbreaks of diseases such as pandemic influenza. And because veterans are numerous and spread out across the country, VA health data provides a vital input to the civilian public health picture. Together the CDC and the VA cover much of the waterfront of potential pandemic trouble spots.

"We send CDC a package of data that we collect on a nightly basis," said Dr. Mark Holodniy, director of VA's Office of Public Health Surveillance and Research, including demographic information and diagnostic codes relating to medical encounters. "The CDC has a group that collects this and other data in an effort to develop a situational awareness at the national level."

The data VA sends to CDC is derived rom the VA's Electronic Surveillance System for Early Notification of Community- based Epidemics (ESSENCE), which monitors data from VA's VistA electronic health records at more than 150 veterans treatment facilities nationwide.

ESSENCE, originally developed by the Defense Department, detects disease outbreaks by applying software algorithms to medical data. For the last six years VA has been running a version of ESSENCE it acquired for its own use. The two are now merging their systems in order to provide each department with a broader public health picture.

VA's Office of Public Health Surveillance and Research also is building a system focused on identifying and monitoring hospital-associated infections. Called the Healthcare-Associated Infection and Influenza Surveillance System (HAIISS), the system was built to streamline hospital care, identify drug resistant microbes and research the efficacy of antibiotics.


ESSENCE is a Web-based application that monitors and provides alerts on rapid or unusual increases in the occurrence of infectious diseases and biological outbreaks. The system captures the numeric diagnostic codes entered into electronic health records and automatically collates that data among 10 categories of syndromes so public health officials can look out for outbreaks of diseases like pneumonia, influenza and food-borne illnesses.

"If the focus is on influenza, for example, the system will identify the number of cases in a specific location that showed up the day before and going back four weeks," said Dr. Ken Cox, director of the Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Program Coordination Office. "Then it looks at those data and applies a statistical approach to determine whether the number of cases are more than would otherwise be expected."

The guts of ESSENCE is an extract, transform and load (ETL) package provided by Informatica, an enterprise data integration technology firm. The ETL tool makes sure that data loaded into the ESSENCE databases are clean, in the proper format and include all fields necessary for further processing. The data must also comply with privacy rules requiring the de-identification of records.

An Informatica tool called B2B is used to extract, transform and standardize unstructured data contained in a document, spreadsheet and messaging files and combine them with structured data extracted from electronic health records. Another Informatica tool, called PowerCenter, monitors databases to extract new information automatically.

Geospatial tools

Analysts also use tools from spatial data software maker ESRI to detect geographical patterns from among many thousands of seemingly random points of data. ESRI's ArcGIS system applies latitude and longitude data to patients' home addresses and displays symptomatic data outcomes in tabular formats for statistical analysis or graphically, by displaying the data on a map.

"Both the tables and the maps can help statisticians determine where concentrations of symptoms have occurred," said Bill Davenhall, ESRI's global marketing manager for health and human service solutions. "Without the geographical information you don't know whether you are seeing an outbreak or something random."

But public health officials do not rely on statistics alone to assess medical situations. "The statistics are always verified at the local level to determine whether it is a true outbreak or not," said Cox.

More regional news

Preferred Behavioral Health Group telehealth

(Credit: Preferred Behavioral Health Group)

A person in scrubs appears on a laptop screen

(Photo by Edwin Tan/Getty Images)

Want to get more stories like this one? Get daily news updates from Healthcare IT News.
Your subscription has been saved.
Something went wrong. Please try again.