Pandemic response complicated by public health agencies’ inability to receive data from hospitals

Dive Brief:

  • The biggest problem with electronic syndromic surveillance reporting isn’t that hospitals lack the capacity to send data — it’s that public health agencies lack the ability to receive it, according to a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.
  • More than four in 10 U.S. hospitals say their local, state and federal public health agencies are unable to receive data electronically, reflecting a decade-long investment in health IT infrastructure on the private sector side without a concomitant investment from its federal partners, researchers found.
  • Hospitals in regions forecast to be some of the hardest hit from COVID-19 were more likely to say public health agencies were unable to receive health data electronically, implying areas of highest need were some of the least prepared to mount a coordinated, data-driven response going into the pandemic.

Dive Insight:

Effective pandemic response requires real-time, accurate data sharing between providers and public health agencies, allowing the government to track outbreaks and allocate resources as needed.

A lack of nationwide, interoperable reporting infrastructure has been one of the major criticisms of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, which has infected almost 1.7 million and killed 99,000 people in the U.S. as of Wednesday.

CMS requires hospitals be able to electronically send and receive health information, including lab results and syndromic surveillance data, to and from public health agencies like their state’s department of health. For more than a decade, providers have funneled significant resources into their IT infrastructure due to a slurry of federal incentive programs, though EHR implementation remains piecemeal across the U.S. due to cost and other barriers.

The JAMIA study, one of the first looking at the state of health data reporting, analyzed 2018 American Hospital Association data to identify hospital-reported barriers to surveillance data reporting, and Harvard Global Health Institute data on the coronavirus pandemic’s projected impact on hospital capacity at the hospital referral region (HRR) level. Researchers assumed a 40% population infection rate over 12 months.

The group found 31 high-need HRRs, those in the top quartile of projected beds needed for COVID-19 patients, with more than half of the hospitals in the region saying the relevant public health agency couldn’t electronically receive data.

That suggests areas more likely to be overwhelmed by the pandemic had some of the least interoperable data-sharing capabilities going into it, hamstringing outbreak response.

Researchers found the most common barrier to data-sharing nationwide, reported by 41% of hospitals, was that public health agencies didn’t have the capacity to receive data electronically.

The next most common, reported by 32% of hospitals, was interface-related issues, such as costs or implementation complexity; followed by difficulty extracting data from the EHR (14% of hospitals reporting), different data standards (also 14%), hospitals lacking the capacity to send data (8%) and hospitals being unsure what public health agencies to send the data to (3%).

Researchers also found significant state variance in hospitals saying public health agencies couldn’t receive needed data electronically, running the gamut from 83% of hospitals saying so in Hawaii and Rhode Island to 40% in New Jersey and Virginia to none in Delaware.

Geographic variation is likely due to different funding priorities in different places, as some agencies may only be able to receive specific data elements or interface with a select number of EHRs. This spotty IT implementation results in a patchwork picture of disease progression across the U.S., though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to automate the COVID-19 reporting process.

The study does have some significant limitations. It’s a relatively one-sided portrayal of the issue, as researchers did not have access to data or survey results from public health agencies. And, since AHA survey results were from two years ago, the EHR landscape could have shifted since 2018.

However, researchers called upon policymakers to build up public health agencies’ IT capabilities, especially as states begin to reopen despite an increasingly likely resurgence of the virus in the fall.

“Policymakers should prioritize investment in public health IT infrastructure along with broader health system information technology for both long-term COVID-19 monitoring as well as future pandemic preparedness,” authors A Jay Holmgren, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School; Nate Apathy, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health; and Julia Adler-Milstein, a professor at University of San Francisco Department of Medicine, wrote.