States, feds still struggle to share health information

Ever since the threat of an outbreak of anthrax or avian flu entered the national consciousness, state health departments have been working overtime to develop early warning disease surveillance systems. However, technical and policy gaps remain in the patchwork of systems that send data about disease outbreaks to national repositories, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS).

A recent report underscored those gaps.

The fifth annual study by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, titled “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Disease, Disasters and Bioterrorism,” listed 12 states with surveillance systems that are incompatible with NEDSS. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut and Minnesota.

The issues include data formats, concerns about privacy and the tension that flares whenever the federal government imposes requirements on state officials without offering funding.

“The feds are preparing for [health emergencies], but it’s the locals who, if the deal goes down, will have the spotlight on them,” said David Siegrist, a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute, a think tank that focuses on technology and national security.

Some states have launched sophisticated surveillance systems that detect unusual health problems or diseases occurring in unexpectedly high volumes. The systems sift through data from labs, hospital emergency rooms, physician practices and pharmacies looking for anomalies.

In Indiana, Health Data Center officials routinely share information with CDC to help coordinate regional response efforts, said Roland Gamache, the center’s director.

The challenge in the Hoosier state is sharing data that arrives on a variety of forms and in many formats.

Health Level 7, a standard for formatting medical data, works well for symptom and geographic information, Gamache said. But other data, such as lab results, often start out with proprietary codes based on the preferences of individual software vendors.

Questions also arise about whether to notify local or federal health authorities first when an outbreak occurs. Gamache advocates for the traditional approach of alerting local authorities first.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done revising the regulations that surround public health reporting,” said Dr. J. Marc Overhage, director of medical informatics at the Regenstrief Institute, a health research organization in Indiana. Officials “need to monitor the health of the population, and they need to intervene on certain patients.

The laws haven’t necessarily caught up with the electronic world yet.”

Joch (ajoch@worldpath.com) is a business and technology writer based in New England.
 

About the Author

Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

Featured

  • Contracting
    8 prototypes of the border walls as tweeted by CBP San Diego

    DHS contractors face protests – on the streets

    Tech companies are facing protests internally from workers and externally from activists about doing for government amid controversial policies like "zero tolerance" for illegal immigration.

  • Workforce
    By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268

    At OPM, Weichert pushes direct hire, pay agent changes

    Margaret Weichert, now acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, is clearing agencies to make direct hires in IT, cyber and other tech fields and is changing pay for specialized occupations.

  • Cloud
    Shutterstock ID ID: 222190471 By wk1003mike

    IBM protests JEDI cloud deal

    As the deadline to submit bids on the Pentagon's $10 billion, 10-year warfighter cloud deal draws near, IBM announced a legal protest.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.