When it comes to data modernization, ‘tech is only one part of the puzzle’
According to Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, Centers for Disease Control Prevention’s acting deputy director for public health science surveillance, the COVID-19 crisis exposed the gaps in disease monitoring “in very real ways.”
Early in the pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security Act, which included $500 million in allocations to the CDC specifically for public health data modernization.
The agency used that money to complement other funding for its Data Modernization Initiative activities, aimed at identifying effectively mitigating emerging threats better preparing the country for public health hazards.
One lesson from it all, said Jernigan at the DirectTrust Summit 2021 this week, is “don’t ever let a crisis go to waste.”
“When COVID hit us back in January , there were some systems in place we were able to utilize those, but they weren’t interoperable; they weren’t scalable,” said Jernigan.
This past summer, the former Trump administration sparked alarm when it directed hospitals to bypass the CDC report COVID-19 patient data to the U.S. Department of Health Human Services instead. At the time, the move provoked confusion chaos at hospitals, which only had a few days’ notice to make the change.
But the administration maintained that the shift was necessary to stay abreast of the pandemic, given limitations with the CDC’s existing tools.
Jernigan noted the complexity of getting to a place of “true interoperability,” which aims to ensure that health information is shared appropriately, via the right channel, at the right time.
“We’re thinking of it in terms of processes at the ground levels,” he explained.
For instance, agents are meeting with medical examiners coroners regarding death data to investigate hurdles to information reporting. Some users found the reporting systems to be unwieldy, while some had technological issues.
“One medical examiner simply lacked a computer,” said Jernigan.
He emphasized the importance of the person when it comes to public health data. “Tech is only one part of the puzzle,” he said. “Modernization is not just about technical upgrades. People can use data to answer urgent policy questions make decisions to save lives.”
Jernigan noted that building iteratively is critical: “For people used to existing systems, new tech can feel like an obstacle. We’re focusing on listening to end users” – while still trying to minimize the time frame between hypothesis discovery.
Jernigan also argued that shared solutions are more powerful more sustainable.
“None of us is operating in a bubble,” he said. Ultimately, he said, one goal of the Data Modernization Initiative is to “put people – keep them – at its center.”