Why Health Information Needs to Move at the Speed of Technology During COVID-19

Nov. 24, 2020
The development of a coronavirus vaccine is moving at record speed thanks to technology and collaboration. We need to take the same approach with public health information to effectively combat COVID-19

In some ways, the speed at which we have tracked the coronavirus has been remarkable. Scientists were able to synthesize its entire genome in January, develop vaccines two months later, and then start clinical trials for multiple vaccines with the hopes of distribution by the end of the year. But in other ways, we have been inefficient and slow.

Public health officials are trying to understand and react to this highly contagious and regularly resurging virus with outdated tools like manual records and fax machines.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed technology gaps and presented an urgent need for a secure, real-time technology solution to help healthcare professionals generate and transmit electronic case reports to public health agencies for review and action.

Coronavirus case reporting—which is required by the federal government—is incredibly important. It can help public health agencies identify areas where cases are surging, analyze at-risk populations and offer trends and forecasts. In early October, the Department of Health and Human Services expanded its case reporting requirements of hospitals to send seasonal flu data to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. We can take these learnings and leverage them in the future to track other diseases or illnesses like the measles, H.I.V. and more.

But case reporting is exceptionally challenging for healthcare professionals in a moment when they are already overburdened by the pandemic. Manual case-reporting requires health providers to step out of the clinical workflow to share this information, often by fax.

Even with the distribution of an effective vaccine, the need to continue case reporting will be critical for years to come. As we adjust to this “new normal,” we should improve and streamline how we meet this new requirement. The state governments can help by cutting back manual case reporting requirements and other restrictions that add red tape to the process.

In the meantime, the healthcare industry and some public health agencies has already begun to innovate and enable critical technologies to share this important information. Health systems are leveraging Direct messaging technology to automate submissions of COVID-19 Electronic Case Reports (eCR) to public health authorities. In many places, Direct messaging is already integrated in electronic health records, allowing seamless integration of case reporting into clinical workflow.

By universally adopting Electronic Case Reports, public health agencies would eliminate the fragile processes associated with printed paper and fax machines to ensure safe, accurate and effective transmission of personal health data to improve overall public health action.

As of the end of October 2020, 31 healthcare organizations delivered 3.36 million COVID-19 electronic initial case reports to 61 jurisdictions nationwide.

At Sutter Health, implementing this critical technology has allowed the organization to transmit electronic case reports in near real time to all local and state public health jurisdictions. This has been central to the health systems ability to meet the evolving requirements to transmit COVID-19 related data to public health partners.

The development of a coronavirus vaccine is moving at record speed thanks to technology and collaboration. We need to take the same approach with public health information to effectively combat COVID-19. Allowing health systems to use eCR to share COVID-19 case reports is one step in the right direction.

Andrew Mellin, MD, VP, Chief Medical Information Officer, Surescripts

Steven Lane, M.D., M.P.H, Clinical Informatics Director, Privacy, Information Security & Interoperability for Sutter Health

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