HHS plan calls for improved communications, IT systems

10-step strategy includes emphasis on situational awareness

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released the nation’s first National Health Security Strategy that outlines steps to use information technology over the next four years to protect health in large-scale emergencies.

The strategy, published Jan. 7, includes goals for improving public health-related communication and information systems.

The document calls for improved situational awareness and better use of communications during health-related major incidents. It also states a need for a “coordinated national health information system that can quickly provide health care data in the early stages of an incident.” Currently, public health information is distributed by federal, state and local agencies.

Situational awareness involves using information technology for active data collecting and monitoring for biomedical surveillance.

“Situational awareness requires the ability to tap into data from relevant sources; the efficient use of appropriate information technologies and means of data exchange; surveillance and laboratory capacity that can be stepped up to meet surge needs during an incident; effective coordination of information sharing across federal, state, and local entities to create a common operating picture; and the active use of information to make timely and well-informed decisions,” the strategy states.

“A robust and integrated biosurveillance capability and effective leveraging of information in the private-sector health care delivery system are especially important,” the strategy adds.

In addition, solutions will be needed to establish and improve emergency communications, including applications to make those systems secure, interoperable and sustainable, the strategy said.

“As we’ve learned in the response to the 2009 [swine flu] pandemic, responsibility for improving our nation’s ability to address existing and emerging health threats must be broadly shared by everyone – governments, communities, families, and individuals,” Sebelius said in a news release.

Health risks and outbreaks may spur further development of health IT. For example, the recent swine flu outbreak elevated technologies for disease tracking and surveillance.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 James Wilson, MD Seattle, WA

While linking Electronic Health Records (EHRs) are an important step for advancing our country's healthcare infrastructure, EHRs, syndromic surveillance, and laboratory surveillance per se played little to no role in rapid warning of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. It was the cueing of laboratory and epidemiological investigation by unofficial reporting of "unusual" respiratory disease in Mexico that prompted social awareness of an international public health emergency.

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