Up in my neck of the New Hampshire woods, folks are up in arms – as well they should be – about a gut-wrenching story involving a nearby hospital and an employee who appears to have deliberately infected patients with hepatitis C for up to a year before he was discovered.
Of course the crimes are all alleged at this point, but as details of the case leach out into the media, it’s getting scarier and scarier for patients and family members the hospital serves…and this suspect might have done it in six other states, too. In fact, the release of medical records to individual patients treated at the hospital has become a point of contention as state officials scramble to assemble testing clinics to get a handle on how far into the community population the disease might be spreading.
This unfolding medical drama only underscores the need for electronic medical records, health information exchange and the plugging-in of public health agencies to patient data, as meaningful use mandates in increasing complexity as it moves through its later stages.
It also is that worst-case scenario where all this stuff needs to work in order to attack a public health issue when time is of the essence. Public health officials – the ones I interview, at least – all seem to have two big problems in common: A lack of funding and IT expertise in building the IT infrastructure to support it.
It’s time for state and federal officials to fund HIEs and analytics systems to help diagnose and contain outbreaks like this, not shrink away like Tennessee and other states appear to be doing. The Exeter Hospital situation’s particularly dramatic, because it’s a manmade health crisis, adding a criminal element to the typical disease-outbreak narrative – but the next time a SARS, avian flu, eastern equine encephalitis, or any other naturally occurring bug spreads through a patient population, lives would be saved if state and national officials could put their mouse hands on large data sets more quickly than they can now.
Can we just once set aside politics in favor of patient needs? Here’s hoping that whoever wins the November elections, sanity will prevail and clinical data analytics innovators will finally be allowed to build a health IT infrastructure that will benefit citizens in times like these. I’ve seen good demos at conferences, the jigsaw puzzle pieces are there to get these systems done. All that’s left is the resolve to build them – and here’s hoping that it won’t take another miserable situation like this one to underscore their importance.