How Publicly Available Data Helps Healthcare Authorities Fight COVID-19: A Conversation with Dr. Doug Fridsma

April 2020

Dr. Doug Fridsma is a leading voice for using data to address healthcare policy challenges: first in the federal government’s efforts to digitize patient records, and most recently as the past President and CEO of the American Medical Informatics Association. But even the most difficult problems of the past cannot compare to the healthcare crisis posed by COVID-19. Now, as the world considers how to carefully return to normalcy without undoing the progress that has been made, Dr. Fridsma sat with Voyager Labs to discuss how this challenge will need new kinds of data to inform healthcare policy decisions. 

We are currently trying to mitigate the spread of the disease by social distancing, but we will eventually need to move to other methods of controlling the coronavirus epidemic. We want to open up our communities while monitoring for any signs of disease outbreaks. What role will data play in keeping individuals safe?

To make good decisions, we need to leverage as much data – both health data and publicly available data—as we can to formulate sound policy. COVID-19 is particularly difficult to manage – it has a wide variation in how it affects people, is highly contagious, and once patients begin to show up in an emergency room, it has already been spreading for a while in a community. What we do as a society plays a key role in controlling the disease.

At a population level, we need to be able to monitor signals in publicly available data that can predict potentially worrisome trends. If people are sharing pictures of themselves getting together with friends in public places, it suggests that some of the policy to reduce social interaction and mitigate the spread of the virus may not be working. If people are spreading rumors and misinformation about unproven treatments, it may require that policy makers step up their efforts to better inform the public of the public health risk of these treatments. Often, this publicly available data will precede changes that we see in the health care data. That can give policy-makers and decision-makers in government time to proactively follow the signals from populations, organize early interventions to reduce the spread of the disease, and anticipate the health care burden that can result as the disease spreads. With a disease that spreads silently and exponentially in a community, these early signals let decision-makers institute policies earlier and with greater effect than waiting until emergency rooms fill up with patients.

Similarly, being able to monitor those population-level signals makes it easier to ease social restrictions and monitor the population if there is a resurgence in the disease. Rapid identification of what is working (and what is not working) enables decision-makers to intelligently lift restrictions while still protecting the general population from a resurgence of the disease.    

Where does this data come from?

While there is a lot of data that comes from hospitals and doctors’ offices, often this data lags what is going on in the community. With the coronavirus, there is a long period between being exposed to the virus and coming down with symptoms. By the time someone shows up in the emergency room with symptoms of an infection, they may have been spreading the disease for days without knowing it. While the data from the health system is important, there are other kinds of publicly available data that can give decision-makers insights.

The challenge is that this public data is mostly unstructured, so it won’t show up in search engines or public health reports. Unstructured public data is a challenge – it can be in different languages, it is often difficult to understand, can be challenging to integrate with other data sources and can be complex to visualize. But when public data is integrated with existing public health data, it can be exponentially more useful. Solutions like Voyager Labs can be an important piece of the puzzle for converting public data into usable insights.

What lessons can we learn from these signals that will help countries get back on their feet?

There’s several. The main one that jumps to mind is contact tracing. Contact tracing is hard and time-consuming, but absolutely essential to being able to move from social distancing and isolation to opening up society and getting back to normal. Solutions that can analyze publicly available data and identify potential contacts with infected individuals can very quickly and dramatically improve the speed, accuracy and depth of contact tracing. This makes public health agencies more efficient. When you have public health officers who have a tremendous amount of work to do and limited resources, a solution that can augment contact tracing, help prioritize the people to reach out to, and serve as a “jog” to the memories of individuals who have been infected can help make public health officers more efficient and effective.  Voyager Labs’ ability to analyze publicly available, open-source data can augment traditional contact tracing.

Ultimately, it will take a multi-pronged effort to control the coronavirus and get society back to normal. While data from hospitals and doctors’ offices is critically important, it often lags behind other population-level signals. Publicly available data is critical to understanding early population signals but requires the ability to analyze and understand complex unstructured data, integrate it with other kinds of data, and present it in a way that makes sense for decision makers. Voyager Labs’ solution can provide new capabilities to understand this publicly available data and offer early insight into what is working in controlling COVID-19.

In a highly contagious disease like the coronavirus, early intervention is critical. Anything that can give decision-makers an early signal into how the disease is being controlled, can return exponential improvements in health.

Dr. Fridsma, we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us. 

Thanks for the opportunity. Stay healthy and safe!

Learn more about our COVID-19 solution here.

Doug Fridsma is an internationally recognized leader in health informatics, standards, interoperability and health IT strategy. For more information about Dr. Fridsma, click here.


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