Real-time data sharing is key to swine flu control

The swine flu outbreak emphasises the global, connected challenges facing today's healthcare professionals - but technology can help, writes...

The swine flu outbreak emphasises the global, connected challenges facing today's healthcare professionals - but technology can help, writes John Poulter, senior vice president EMEA at Informatica.

Being able to monitor risk, identify potential carriers and share accurate information is at the heart of controlling potential pandemics. And given the speed at which disease can spread, information has to be as near to real time as possible.

The good news is that the growing computerisation of healthcare IT means that information on this scale is increasingly available. Historically, healthcare providers have worked in silos, with data kept on local, unconnected systems. The last five years have seen a push for national IT systems, such as Connecting for Health (CfH), that securely share data, including medical records, to deliver better patient care and increase efficiency.

This information explosion has however created three new challenges. Data needs to be integrated between multiple different systems, quality needs to be checked and advanced analytics are necessary to track trends and navigate through the potentially millions of records out there.

In the case of pandemics integrating different IT infrastructures is complicated by the number of countries, systems and standards involved. It is impossible to expect every healthcare IT system to use the same standards - cost alone would be prohibitive. Add in disparate hardware and software configurations, ranging from mainframes to the latest web-based systems and you see the scale of the integration problem.

While it is pretty obvious that neighbouring NHS trusts will need to be able to exchange information, sharing information internationally is a new experience. And it is impossible to plan who you will need to integrate with. Given the speed at which diseases spread once the need is identified it must be met quickly if pandemics are to be understood, tracked and ultimately controlled.

Therefore hard-wired links will not work. What is needed is a more open approach that can handle all types of data, check information quality and translate it accordingly. Essentially this should be an information hub that combines built in translators for common data formats, with a user-friendly way of integrating new formats. And despite the increase in healthcare IT use, it is vital that unstructured data such as fax, email and spreadsheets can also be included.

Information quality is vital to ensure both that data is complete and that systems are acting consistently. For example different terms need to be understood, different fields need to be matched and dubious or unclear records flagged automatically. This prevents bad data corrupting the overall picture and aids analysis.

Bringing data together and making it cohesive and consistent provides the ability for healthcare professionals to access the most powerful weapon against pandemics - real time information. Understanding where swine flu cases are most concentrated, who carriers have recently been in contact with, susceptibility of particular groups and specific ways that diseases are spreading should put doctors one step ahead. Used correctly, comparisons can be drawn with other countries or outbreaks, providing the ability to predict next steps and take action accordingly.

Swine flu has been declared the first pandemic of the 21st century and demonstrates that the need for real-time collaboration across the world is accelerating. With technology increasingly at the heart of healthcare, it is vital that organisations work together and integrate data in order to turn it into useful, actionable and real time information. This analysis will provide the ability to stay one step ahead of pandemics to control the further spread of disease and hopefully minimise potential loss of life.

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