One way to curb disease is through the rapid dissemination of data, taking into account everything from human travel to bird migration to weather. Through communication systems, data mining, modelling and analytics, we can do a great deal to help contain a pandemic, should one occur. So why aren’t our government and health-care providers doing more?A recent report from the SARS commission concluded that Ontario remains at risk of another SARS-like outbreak unless it fixes the holes in its health-care system. SARS travelled from central China to Toronto in 2003, where it killed 44 people and infected many more – and was responsible for wreaking havoc on the province’s health-care system. While we’re in better shape than in 2003, we’re not where we should be.

The report points to systemic failures in communication, infection control and worker safety – and many of these communication failures still exist. The second SARS outbreak was blamed on a lack of adequate surveillance.

The next pandemic is expected to emerge outside of Canada and arrive in the country within three months, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The first peak of illness could occur within two to four months after the virus arrives and will likely last 12 to 18 months. Up to 70 per cent of the population could become infected, though it’s expected only 15 to 35 per cent will become “clinically” ill.

Unless systems are interoperable, communication could remain one of this country’s key problems. We’ve beefed up GPHIN, Canada’s Internet-based early warning system that monitors global media sources in seven languages and gathers preliminary reports of public health significance. It filters the information for relevancy, which is then analyzed by GPHIN officials; if necessary, notifications are forwarded to users. Topics tracked include disease outbreaks, infectious diseases, contaminated food and water, bio-terrorism and exposure to chemical and radio-nuclear agents.

But what about monitoring what’s actually going on in our own health-care system, before it hits the six o’clock news? Putting aside the complications of privacy, there is a need for better data – and better ways to mine and analyze that data. Telus, for example, has come up with a communication system for large-scale emergencies, which is being rolled out by Capital Health in Alberta. The Emergency Manager Rapid Notification system is an interactive program that can call, e-mail or text message executives and clinicians in emergency situations. The software includes a mapping and incident-logging component that will be linked into the Emergency Management Alberta Operations Centre so, if necessary, it can send messages to affected areas (the system is able to make thousands of calls in one hour).

IBM is another vendor that has developed an interoperable health-care information infrastructure called IHII (pronounced eye-high), which is capable of collecting and analyzing data for determining outbreaks and health trends based on data shared by partner medical facilities. Its Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeller (STEM) system then uses modelling to determine the best way to contain outbreaks.

These technologies, however, won’t work if everyone’s on a different page, using different technologies. Alberta’s Capital Health is taking a step forward, but we need all regions, in all provinces, to work together to track, analyze and share data – so next time a pandemic strikes we won’t fumble the ball.

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