New Health Data Net May Help in Fight Against SARS

Consortium plans trial of national network that could alert officials to epidemics, bioattacks

A consortium of public health agencies and health care companies in June plans to launch a three-month test of a data collection and distribution network that's designed to act as an automated early-warning system in the event of epidemics like the global spread of the SARS virus.

The Web-based network could also alert health care officials to possible bioterrorist attacks, said Janet Marchibroda, CEO of the eHealth Initiative Inc. consortium. Marchibroda confirmed the basic details of the trial run that's being planned by the Washington-based group, which has about 115 members, including major vendors of health care IT systems.

Some cities, including New York, developed local systems similar to the one envisioned by eHealth in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the U.S. lacks a cohesive and standards-based network that can be used nationwide, according to Marchibroda.

She said nine hospitals across the U.S. plan to take part in the test of eHealth's proposed National Healthcare Collaborative Network, along with local, state and federal health agencies that she declined to identify. Marchibroda also wouldn't name the IT vendors that will participate, or comment about the technology that will be used to support the network.

The eHealth network will capture patient data collected by hospitals—especially in emergency rooms—and automatically distribute information to health agencies. The project was in the works prior to the recent outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and the network isn't being developed specifically to gather SARS-related data.

But Dr. Russell Ricci, general manager of IBM's global health care division, said automated syndromic surveillance technology that can collect information about symptoms like the high fever and respiratory problems that are common with SARS will be a key component of the three-month test.

In addition to emergency room data, syndromic surveillance systems can gather information about sales of over-the-counter medicines, Ricci said. However, that capability won't be part of the network test, he added.

The pilot project will demonstrate how to apply sophisticated data mining techniques to the health care industry and how to tie together stovepiped hospital information systems using commercial middleware tools, Ricci said.

The test version of the network will support electronic data exchange standards that were mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services in March, Marchibroda said. She added that eHealth officials hope that the pilot project will lead to the development of a full network, but that will depend on additional funding. EHealth is building the test network in a partnership with the New York-based Markle Foundation.

Ricci said he couldn't quantify the cost of implementing a full nationwide network. "I would not even know where to put the decimal point," he said, adding that federal backing would likely be needed.

Dr. Seth Foldy, health commissioner for the city of Milwaukee, said he hopes that eHealth's efforts will lead to the eventual development of a system that would make it easier to exchange syndromic surveillance data. "This is not going to be easy, but maybe eHealth can build a business case and demonstrate that it is possible," Foldy said.

He noted that the surveillance data can alert doctors and public health officials to potential outbreaks of epidemics like SARS more quickly than is possible with traditional, diagnosis-based systems, which often require lab tests that take days to complete. Syndromic systems provide more immediate information about patterns of symptoms among patients, Foldy said.

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The National Healthcare Collaborative Network pilot test will

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Use standards-based systems to mine emergency room data and transmit information to public health agencies.

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Support electronic data exchange standards mandated by the federal government.

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Help health officials watch for patient symptoms that could be signs of epidemics like SARS or bioterrorist attacks.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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