E-health data collection key to tracking Swine Flu spread

As health agencies rush to analyze data, some companies prep for a pandemic

As the prospect of a flu pandemic grew more likely Wednesday -- the World Health Organization raised its threat alert to level 5 -- data is pouring into federal health care agencies using systems that a decade ago did not even exist.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention had reported 91 cases of Swine Flu in 10 states. One death in Texas -- a 23-month-old child from Mexico -- has been attributed to the flu, and health officials expect more deaths to follow.

The swiftness with which the Swine Flu has spread -- and the speed with which new electronic health surveillance systems have tracked its emergence -- is prompting companies to quickly dust off business continuity plans and warn workers to guard their health.

"Businesses need to take this serious and put plans in place for personnel," said Michael Croy, director of business continuity solutions at Forsythe Solutions Group Inc., an IT consulting firm in Skokie, Ill. "They need to make sure employees can work from home. They need to tell them about how to take care of their health and be overly cautious by telling workers to stay home if they feel sick. But they also need to do it in way so as not to create panic."

The best antidote for panic is information, and disease surveillance systems rolled out in recent years are allowing health agencies to track, report and confirm Swine Flu cases faster than ever. But gaps in the system remain, health care experts said.

While today's electronic reporting systems are vastly more sophisticated than the paper-based methods used as recently as 10 years ago, many community hospitals and private physicians are still not equipped to correlate all the data coming from health providers, insurance companies and laboratories.

"We've gone beyond the early detection," said Doug Hamaker, who manages the data collection for infectious reportable conditions at the Texas Department of State Health Services. "I don't think there's a local health department around that's not aware of the Swine Flu and is not aware that it either is or could easily be occurring in their local area. What we're transitioning over to now is the use of a case surveillance system that says for those who have an influenza-like illness ... is that the Swine Flu variant?"

For at least 100 years, the U.S. government has required states to report potential epidemics. That system was traditionally paper-based and it could take days, if not weeks, for information to trickle up to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which coordinate health care and epidemic response on a national basis.

Accuracy in reporting remains a problem, because it depends on the sophistication of electronic systems used by local and state health agencies to quickly gather data for he federal government.

In the past few years, electronic tools have begun to transform the reporting system -- reducing or eliminating the burden on doctors, nurses or medical laboratories to fill out reports on potential epidemics, according to Scott Danos, an independent consultant in Atlanta.

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