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The Role of Public Health Data Management During a Pandemic

Posted on March 24th, 2023   |   SSG

The next global pandemic could happen at a moment’s notice. Public health departments use health data management to track and analyze the spread of novel viruses to prevent them from becoming pandemics. The disease surveillance system is the department’s first line of defense when faced with the outbreak of a new disease. 

Public health data management is vital when responding to a global pandemic. When a new infectious disease is detected, such as COVID-19, it is up to public health officials to warn the population of the risks, so businesses and individuals can take precautions to protect themselves from infection. But these experts need to base their decisions and policy recommendations on sound data to ensure they will prevent the spread of disease. 

When a pandemic occurs, officials may be unfamiliar with the novel virus, including its effect on the human body and how it is passed from one person to another. They use the data they collect from healthcare providers and organizations to glean insights into the new disease, so they can supply accurate information to those who need it most. 

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of public health data management. Public health officials suddenly found themselves inundated with large volumes of disease surveillance data in the early days of the crisis. These departments need to be able to quickly process and analyze the information they receive to ensure officials can effectively respond to the situation as it evolves in real time.

What’s the difference between an endemic and a pandemic? 

Both endemics and pandemics are cause for concern from an epidemiological standpoint, but they represent different stages in a healthcare crisis. A pandemic is when the spread of an infectious disease causes major disruptions to society and the healthcare infrastructure. In a pandemic, the disease spreads faster than normally expected among large sections of the global population, making it difficult for officials to contain the situation. 

The spread of COVID-19 largely caught the world off guard, leading to a devastating pandemic that killed over 6.8 million people over three years and is still going strong in many parts of the world. Hospitals were overwhelmed with patients suffering from respiratory complications, and the situation forced many sections of the U.S. economy to close to slow the spread.

In an endemic, the virus or disease still spreads throughout the community, but the situation is somewhat contained and no longer overwhelms the local healthcare system. Many pandemics devolve into endemics after several years of circulation. In most cases, vaccines and various treatment options must be readily available for this transition to occur.

Many epidemiologists believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually revert to an endemic. The disease itself isn’t going away and will likely continue to affect the U.S. population for years to come. Still, the use of vaccines and new treatment options should slow the spread and reduce the health effects of infection to where the virus is no longer a threat to societal functions and the country’s healthcare infrastructure. 

Why is data analytics important in public health? 

Data analytics has become an essential component of the healthcare system over the last twenty years. Most health systems and facilities use electronic records systems when diagnosing and treating patients. Public health departments are also digitizing their records systems to increase efficiency and improve accuracy. The department will collect patient data from healthcare providers as it relates to various diseases and conditions. The department will need to first import and cleanse the data it receives from providers using disease surveillance software before uploading it into the database, which is then used to track the spread of the disease in real time. 

Every reported case of infection can reveal new insights into the disease in question. Public health officials will be able to see where the cases occur, including what kinds of people are most likely to be infected. This allows the department to implement targeted restrictions or precautions in areas with high infection rates. 

The disease may also affect different groups of people in different ways. For example, COVID-19 proved to be riskier for older individuals, those from diverse backgrounds, and those with pre-existing health issues. Public health officials can use the data they collect to monitor the symptoms and condition of patients infected with the virus. They can also identify whether the novel virus or disease was the underlying cause of death. The department will continuously refine its recommendations for different groups of people based on the information it receives. 

What are disease surveillance systems?

Disease surveillance systems are centralized databases containing case-specific information on specific diseases and conditions related to a specific population or geographic area. State and local health departments use them to track the spread of infectious diseases, including the reported health effects, possible means of exposure or transmission, and the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments. 

The public health software system will contain a breakdown of how the disease affects the local population, including the number of cases and deaths reported, what kinds of people are being affected, and the endemic or pandemic’s effect on the healthcare system. Public health officials will typically share their findings with the public and federal government agencies to keep everyone on the same page.

What is the purpose of disease surveillance? 

Disease surveillance is the systematic collection and organization of epidemiological data as it relates to a specific illness or disease. It is used to track the spread of a disease within a geographical area, so public health officials can implement measures and recommendations designed to minimize the number of people infected. It is also used to learn about the disease in question, including its overall effect on the human body and how it can affect different groups of people. This information will help the department focus its efforts on protecting those most at risk of severe illness and death. 

How do we analyze the importance of epidemic surveillance? 

The threat of COVID-19 may be less than what it was three years ago, but that doesn’t mean the days of widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders are gone for good. Epidemiologists warn there is always a chance the novel virus could mutate into a more transmissible variant, which could reignite a global pandemic. Another novel virus could also easily pop up at any time, leading to another infectious wave of disease. 

An epidemic is when a disease or virus spreads at higher-than-expected levels within the community, but it is typically contained to a limited geographic area. Public health officials use epidemic surveillance to track the spread of the disease within the affected area to keep it contained so it doesn’t spread to new regions or lead to another global pandemic. 

Officials may limit travel within the region or prevent residents from leaving the area. Regular testing and treatment should be made available to reduce the outbreak’s severity. Epidemiologists will also need to quickly investigate the area to find the origin of the virus. 

What are the different types of public health surveillance?

Public health surveillance can be classified as passive, active, or syndromic. 

Passive health surveillance is when healthcare providers regularly share data on various diseases and conditions with the local public health department. It is conducted as part of the department’s normal operations and monitors the spread of previously established diseases and conditions. The diseases can be communicable and noncommunicable.

Active health surveillance is when the public health department requests data on specific diseases and conditions, including those caused by novel viruses, from healthcare providers, usually during a public health emergency, such as an epidemic or pandemic. This type of reporting includes more accurate, detailed information as part of the research process.

Syndromic health surveillance is the systematic and ongoing collection of health data, but instead of collecting reports on confirmed cases of the disease, officials collect information on indicators of disease, such as symptoms and warning signs that could result in a positive diagnosis. 

How can public health surveillance control infectious outbreaks? 

Public health departments use public health surveillance to detect and identify the outbreak of novel viruses. Providers will report on the diagnosis and the patient’s symptoms to the public health department, so they can further investigate the situation. The department must work quickly to analyze the data as soon as it receives it. More cases are likely to appear if the disease is communicable. The researchers will then compare data, conduct interviews with providers and patients, and set up contract tracing to determine how the disease spreads, which will inform the department’s mitigation efforts.

The world will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health data management is the key to preventing another global health crisis. The system should make it easy to digest and cleanse various types of data, so officials can take action to stop the spread before the situation gets out of control.