Policy makers must act to strengthen the collection and reporting of public health data

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that improvements are needed in the country’s public health system. A new Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) report aims to establish a framework for the necessary changes. Developed in collaboration with a steering committee I have served on, the report addresses several priorities, from laws and governance to funding and staffing, that can help ensure that public health agencies are better prepared for future emergencies.

A critical area highlighted is the need for electronic data sharing. Public health agencies need quick access to information on the threats facing their communities. Although this problem predates the pandemic, it has been a huge stumbling block during the crisis. Any effort to improve the public health system will require that data reach public health agencies in a timely manner.

An important step towards this goal is to have health care providers and laboratories electronically report four key types of data — individual disease cases, test results, immunization records, and service visits. emergency — all of which can be used to identify the potential population. health threats at the level. Everyone has a critical role to play in painting a clear picture of how communities are affected by disease or health issues – without access to all of this data, national and local authorities will struggle to quantify and understand the outcomes. threats their communities face, or how best to respond to them.

Pew is working in the following ways to help advance the BPC data recommendations.

Expand reporting requirements for healthcare providers

Last month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that they would require providers who treat Medicare patients electronically share data with public health agencies about illness and vaccination cases. This is a critical requirement for these agencies: electronic data sharing can help them analyze and process information faster than if it were received by traditional means such as faxes or phone calls. And having such information can help agencies track the potential spread of disease in their communities, as well as provide information on how well those communities can be protected, based on vaccination rates.

However, not all of the information needed by public health agencies was included in the final rule. Syndromic surveillance data, which provides a community-wide picture of potential health threats and tracks the emergence or spread of disease, remains optional. In the next policy update, CMS should consider requiring emergency care providers and emergency services to send syndromic surveillance data.

Ensure electronic health records can share data with public health

Most electronic health record (EHR) systems have the ability to send information to health agencies, but due to various factors, such as concerns about costs or unfamiliarity with the systems, all providers do not use these functions. The new CMS requirement will help change that, but some EHRs still do not have the ability to share data electronically.

For this reason, CMS’s new payment rules give vendors a one-year extension to comply with electronic case reporting requirements if their EHRs do not yet have this functionality. The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, the federal agency that oversees health information technology, should follow CMS’s lead and adopt its own regulations requiring that all EHRs be able to send all public health data electronically to agencies.

Update state policies to support electronic data sharing

For these measures to have the desired impact, not only must states require that this data be shared with their public health agencies, they must also ensure that these agencies can quickly receive and analyze the information. Numerous experiences of state agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic show that significant gaps remain.

To address this issue, state policymakers should require that the four main types of public health data be shared electronically with public health agencies, rather than continuing to allow submission by fax, phone calls, mail, and more. obsolete methods that slow down data collection and analysis. Policymakers should also demand that the data be complete, for example by specifying that reports should include data on the races and ethnicities of individuals in order to facilitate monitoring of the impact of a disease on different populations, as well as their contact details in case contact tracing is required.

While providing complete and timely data to public health agencies does not solve all the challenges they face, the BPC report highlights the important steps that policymakers should take to ensure that their communities are better protected against serious future health threats and ongoing challenges related to chronic disease. diseases like diabetes and asthma. Without this data, any public health response will take longer to develop, putting more lives at risk.

Kathy Talkington leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on public health issues.

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