The COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented demands on our nation’s public health workforce, in particular emergency responders and syndromic surveillance experts. The pandemic also created an enormous need for agencies and jurisdictions involved in responding to the emergency – and healthcare providers – to share health data necessary to appropriately manage and treat COVID patients.
Pandemic funding and appropriations helped mobilize innovation at the local, state and federal levels – expanding electronic case reporting and driving the development of much-needed health information sharing with public health agencies and jurisdictions in real time. But successive surges highlighted serious gaps in policy and regulations, infrastructure, data quality and availability, and other key factors that impact data sharing.
In 2021, The Sequoia Project, a nonprofit that works with government and industry to foster health information sharing, launched a workgroup to address this very issue. The group included leaders from state and local public health and emergency response experts across the country and the health IT industry.
The goal: Capture firsthand experiences, share ideas and lessons learned, and develop recommendations to improve our nation’s response to future public health emergencies.
In early 2022, the workgroup released “Pandemic Response Insights and Recommendations” to help state and local agencies build on progress made during the pandemic and address remaining needs and challenges. The recommendations span key factors – such as technology, workforce, data and access, and policy – that must be addressed to improve public health emergency preparedness and response.
Here are a few summary examples:
Inventory existing capabilities
To inform their efforts, state and local public health agencies and jurisdictions should create high-level inventories of their current capabilities and gaps for data sharing, including workforce knowledge and skillsets, health IT infrastructure and systems, and data analytics.
Strengthen relationships before the next emergency
Collaboration with other states, jurisdictions and emergency response experts is key to creating an emergency preparedness and response ecosystem that supports robust and seamless health information sharing. In anticipation of future emergencies, states and jurisdictions should either create or join public health and emergency preparedness and response associations, workgroups and other organizations that are working to build capacity for effective data sharing.
Use national infrastructure for health information exchange
Public health agencies and jurisdictions can connect into existing statewide, regional and national networks for health information exchange directly or through local health information networks. In the future, this could also be enabled by the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA).
Pursue smart funding strategies
To fund projects related to health information sharing, public health agencies, jurisdictions and other agencies involved in emergency preparedness and response should take advantage of federal monies, such as the data modernization grants, ensuring that their own budget allocations do not overlap or compete. For new federal grant programs, the workgroup recommends expanding the types of matching funds that recipients can use and adding sustainability funding to continue efforts beyond the typical one-year allotment.
Share data bi-directionally, especially vaccination records
Data exchange must be bi-directional – meaning that public health agencies and jurisdictions and other entities involved in emergency preparedness and response must share their data with one another. This is particularly important for immunization registries.
Expand access to Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) data
In an emergency response situation, access to information on a patient’s prescriptions for controlled drugs is critical. However, state laws governing this data vary considerably. Education and training programs can help ensure that providers and others understand PDMP data and access restrictions. States should address policy and technology barriers to expand access and thereby improve emergency response.
A future where emergency response, public health, and interoperability intersect
The summary highlights above represent a snapshot of the recommendations released by the Emergency Preparedness Information Workgroup and available for review and implementation now. To build on these efforts, the workgroup is preparing a public health IT policy roadmap for interoperability, for release later this year.
The Sequoia Project and its community of experts are promoting public health as an essential interoperability partner that can help those on the frontlines plan for – and accelerate – a more cohesive nationwide response to future public health emergencies.