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The Time Is Now to Improve Data Collection in Public Health

By Dr. Sydney Heimbrock and Christopher Schott

The pandemic taught us the hard way that our country’s public health system suffers from major gaps in technology and data systems integration. Siloed data collection platforms, infrequent community engagement and labor intensive manual case management processes — these hurt all of us as we were unprepared to respond quickly and effectively to the outbreak of COVID-19. And now the reemergence of once-contained infectious diseases like Monkeypox and polio give renewed urgency to build better systems for early prevention and more proactive response.

Among all the challenges across federal, state and local public health systems, one factor consistently stands out: fractured data collection.

Health and Human Services Departments need to centralize digital data collection

Public health departments have more data than at any time in their history. Yet hardly anybody knows where to find all the data on a particular program or service, not to mention an individual community member. Yet comprehensive data is essential for everything from executive decision-making to targeted intervention for individuals. The effectiveness of major decisions like stay-at-home orders for COVID rely on comprehensive datasets that paint a complete picture of risk to the community.

Even with new systems and lessons drawn from COVID, establishing a single source of truth for data collection remains elusive. One large county health department in California receives death report data through more than a dozen channels — including EMR systems, Excel spreadsheets, electronic surveys and even fax. The data are spread across at least a dozen repositories, requiring time-intensive effort to transcribe, cleanse, reformat and relay to any state or federal reporting systems. For rapidly evolving situations like communicable disease outbreaks, the amount of time it takes to reconcile disparate data sources can mean insights arrive too late to make a difference to slow community spread.

Centralizing data collection makes a huge impact: 

  1. Efficiencies for all stakeholders

Most local and state health departments receive data in varying reporting formats from hundreds of entities across multiple topics. Centralizing all these reporting formats into a single, digital repository would save immense time and resources for any health department. The same principle applies to other stakeholders in the public health system, like hospitals. Centralizing the reporting system for the local or state authority could drive immense savings for healthcare providers, public providers and other reporting entities in the jurisdiction.

  1. Faster time to action

Data centralization exponentially improves speed to action and thus community health outcomes. Particularly with infectious disease outbreaks, speed to action is critical. In the early days of COVID, testing outcome reports were often delayed and could trail “real” case counts by over two weeks. LA County Department of Health (LADPH) circumvented this challenge by asking residents for their symptoms directly through digital engagement with the Angelenos in Action panel. At its peak, this enabled LADPH to gain representative insights from nearly 20,000 community members that predicted the spread of COVID-19. LADPH used these insights to preposition clinics and testing sites to speed response. Centralizing data collection on a single tool provides immediate insights to leaders for effective action – making a direct impact on the health of a community.

  1. A holistic view of the person or community

Making informed decisions for your community is impossible without aggregated data. Data cannot be aggregated if you don’t know where it lives. With multiple programs independently collecting and evaluating data for the same communities and individuals, silos quickly emerge that can easily prevent even the most thoughtful leaders from taking data-driven action for their community.

Centralizing data collection eliminates this challenge. With all data feeding into a single repository, all stakeholders from program managers to department leaders can quickly grasp all available insights on their community, specific community segments or even individuals. These collected insights are essential for true data-driven decision-making to produce the best health outcomes. 

The time is now to address these longstanding deficiencies in our public health infrastructure. We now understand that public health crises will be more frequent and more intense for the foreseeable future. Effective preparedness and response demands giving decision makers and caregivers the complete picture they need to protect and support communities.

Check out how Ventura County, Winnebago County and Oakland County are applying pandemic-borne practices to centralize data collection.

Dr. Sydney Heimbrock is Chief Industry Advisor for Government at Qualtrics, where she uses her global experience transforming governments through investments in workforce development and policy reform to help federal, state and local government organizations design experiences that build public trust. 

Chris Schott is a Customer Success Manager at Qualtrics, advising State & Local Government agencies on how to leverage technology for better public and internal service provision as well as process improvement. Much of his work focuses on Public Health Program optimization, as well as improvements to Human Services delivery. Chris holds a Bachelor’s degree in Government from Cornell University, and has previously worked in the Executive Office of the President, Honeywell Connected Vehicles, DHL Consulting and the Institute for African Development.

Photo by Kampus Productions on pexels.com

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