Stemming Terror By Sharing
A patchwork of isolated agencies,
the current national public health system has trouble meeting
ordinary day-to-day public health needs, much less the added
burden posed by terrorism.
To rebuild the system, the president and Congress have promised
billions of federal dollars and often cited information
technology as a key part of the solution. But willy-nilly
purchasing of computers and software will not solve the problem,
warns Elin Gursky, ScD '85, senior fellow at the Center for
Civilian Biodefense Strategies. An information-sharing system
with national standards is needed so that hospitals and health
departments can exchange information seamlessly.
The system needs to be able
to respond in real-time when, for example, hospitals report
an unexpected disease or a sudden surge in patients. "We
don't have in place an early warning system that can measure
and instantly report an atypical public health event,"
Gursky says. "Even if we had [that], we don't have the
next pieces: the connectivity, how you find the key people
and disseminate the information to public health authorities
and hospitals and tell them to gear up for X number of patients,
[and] how you share this information 24/7."
Gursky is a member of the national
Information Technology Infrastructure for Bioterrorism Summit
Group. (The Center was a catalyst for the initiative.) The
group of public health officials, hospital administrators,
technology professionals, and others is working to design
a network with common software standards that would allow
medical and public health officials to immediately share the
latest information on outbreaks, diagnoses, treatments, and
available resources, such as antibiotics or vaccines.
The group, facilitated by the
RAND Corporation, plans to create a blueprint for the architecture
by this summer, Gursky says. "Our concern is that state
and local health departments have the right guidance to use
the dollars wisely," she says. - BWS