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Ready for the Next Crisis: The Cure for Data Chaos at Our State Health Departments

By John Schaeffer, CEO of SSG  

One cannot overstate the strain that COVID-19 has placed on our healthcare system, our hardworking state health departments included. All over the country, healthcare workers and officials kept good records and reported vital data, all while caring for the greatest influx of patients our medical system has seen since the Spanish Flu. Nobody was ready for a pandemic of this magnitude, and there’s no shame in our state health systems needing time to adjust. Even those states with precautions in place just did not have the bandwidth (in multiple senses) to deal with COVID-19, and the result has been widespread difficulty in multiple areas. Several of the more challenging aspects of data management during the pandemic could be avoided by anticipating the next major health crisis and adopting future-proof technologies.  

The need to organize 

Many state health departments have faced a technology gap and have been unable to switch from paper to digital recordkeeping, resulting in both drag and disorganization. Comprehensive data entry can gather every scrap of data from every disparate paper document and collate it online, at the cost of considerable lead-time. Until such data entry is complete, the slowdown on querying information scattered across multiple forms in multiple locations can sometimes cripple executive action. This decentralization of file storage makes it likelier that one or more could be lost or simply untraceable when they are needed, leaving important information inaccessible at a key moment. 

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In a similar vein, many state health departments use non-standardized legacy datasets within the overall recordkeeping structure. As different organizations or subdivisions of a department have developed their own practices — often before data analytics even existed — each adopted its own method for keeping records, distinct from some or all of the others, creating wildly different approaches to forms and filing. Reconciling data across multiple organizations or departments can often take so long that the information becomes out-of-date. Even if still useful for analytics or machine-learning applications, non-uniform datasets are often entered into such systems too late to prepare crisis responses for the next disaster. Nonstandard datasets are an especially thorny problem as repairing this issue means overhauling the unique practices of multiple organizations with different ideas on how to operate. 

Both of these problems lead to inoperability and data chaos as state health departments get stuck with data that is impossible to parse in a timely manner, especially with health issues like COVID that require rapid response times. Civic departments are not built from the ground up to parse massive amounts of medical data from various sources and in various formats as they’re collated from disparate paper files. The resulting information, while it may get standardized later if it’s passed on to a data center, is effectively useless to the health departments from which it comes. Not only will staff have a hard time negotiating the different data streams to get a clear picture of their situation, but the time that it takes to do so in a crisis is simply untenable when lives are on the line and likewise counter to the mission of our dedicated state healthcare professionals. 

The software solution 

It stands to reason therefore that these issues can be solved from the ground-up if state health departments adopt a single end-to-end platform for gathering, collating, and transferring data. Such a system would automate and digitize all paperwork, completely eliminating the need for data entry as an extra step since the information would immediately be entered into the system as soon as each electronic form was complete. Likewise, a software platform would automatically standardize and reconcile all data into a single, unified system, coincidentally helping different organizations and departments communicate as everyone’s data would use the same terms. And rather than having to gather all the data and send it manually to analytics for processing, such a system would automate analytics so any data collected would immediately be added to an ongoing and dynamic data refinement procedure.  

COVID-19 has been so devastating in part because organizations at the state faced a technology gap when reacting to the intense demand for new data while also working courageously to save lives. By embracing cutting-edge software solutions that automate the paperwork, data gathering, and analytics processes, state health departments can prepare for emergencies in a way we simply could not manage previously. The time and cost to adopt a new platform and train a department’s staff is negligible compared to the precious lost time when a disaster like COVID-19 comes around. With comprehensive and uniform data management and lightning-fast analytics, our state health departments can be ready to tackle the next crisis with a system worthy of all their efforts and dedication. 

John Schaeffer leads SSG with a vision to apply his combined IT and management consulting experience to enhance public sector organizations.  Previously, he worked on a consulting basis within 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). 

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.

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