A Global War, Fought One Community at a Time

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Local health departments take on the COVID pandemic – and prepare for its aftermath

By John Schaeffer, Co-President, SSG

It is almost impossible to fully comprehend the magnitude of the COVID-19 health crisis, both in terms of the number of casualties around the world and its devastating effect on what we used to think of as normal life. While the effects have been global, we need to remember that the pandemic is primarily being fought by public health departments at a local level. That’s not to say that national governments aren’t playing a vital role in COVID response; just look at the radically different approaches taken by New Zealand and Brazil to see the overall impact national policy can make. But frontline healthcare ultimately happens at the local level, and it’s the actions of city and county health departments that decide how transmission is reduced, patients are cared for, vaccines are rolled out, and future outbreaks are mitigated.

Understandably, these local health departments are under considerable strain. Accelerated vaccine administration in the second quarter of 2021, combined with the threat of new variants of COVID, have increased the burden on state and local health departments across the US. At the same time, many of these departments are facing budget restrictions and resource constraints.

One of the biggest drains on healthcare systems is that so many processes are still manual. Systems often don’t talk to each other, and data needs to be constantly input and re-input to be usable. Not only is this inefficient, but it’s an approach that can create serious data management problems. In the near term, health departments need to invest in new tools and modernize their back offices to make infrastructure improvements a priority. As new funding becomes available, which the new federal budget almost guarantees will be a reality, local health officials need to identify manual workflows that can be automated and seek guidance on tools and solutions that can help them.

Identifying areas that can be fixed is important, but it’s just the first step toward making the kind of lasting changes that will improve efficiencies and outcomes. Technical teams at public health departments need to carefully evaluate vendors not only on the ones and zeros of their products, but on their knowledge about the public health sector. So many technology companies are jumping on the bandwagon without having the deep experience necessary to deliver solutions that will actually work in the real world. It’s not just start-ups that are doing this: a number of major technology companies are entering this field not because they have the background to successfully address healthcare management problems, but simply because they see a market opportunity.

This means that the market is quickly becoming crowded with software solutions that promise aid for the public health sector without having the necessary insight to create a long-term strategy for success. As a result, there are far too many horror stories about companies investing millions of dollars in technology that sounds like a solution, only to see it go unused because it doesn’t meet the organization’s actual needs. To avoid this, it’s critical for leaders in public health to envision how their organizations should operate, then challenge their CIOs to craft roadmaps of what a modernized operation would actually look like.

Digital transformation can give public health organizations the ability to reduce manual tasks, connect and streamline systems, and otherwise improve their infrastructure. But these solutions must come from companies with proven knowledge in the sector, or else they run the risk of offering very little in terms of real-world usability. By choosing the right solutions, local health organizations can establish the groundwork for improving health outcomes in their communities today while creating the capacity to handle whatever comes tomorrow.

John Schaeffer leads SSG with a vision to apply his combined IT and management consulting experience to enhance public sector organizations.  Previously, he worked in financial services for Goldman Sachs, Prudential Investments, and Credit Suisse First Boston. John holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

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