Sybase Simplifies Life and Death in N.Y.

Sybase Simplifies Life and Death in N.Y

By John Makulowich, Senior Writer


A contract that Sybase Inc. won from New York state is taking the notion of service to the citizen all the way to the grave. If add-ons are awarded ? as seems likely ? it could even reach back to the cradle and the more significant events in between, such as marriage and divorce.

One of two model projects now under way in the United States, the contract is getting serious attention from other states seeking to offer its citizens similar services.

This deal could be a windfall for Sybase of Emeryville, Calif., whose officials declined to disclose the value of the contract.

ManTech Advanced Systems International (part of ManTech International Corp. in Fairfax, Va.) developed a similar project for New Hampshire's Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics.

Known as Vital Record Vision 2000, New York's system will use the Internet and custom software to link more than 6.5 million records in a single, integrated database. It will cover the offices of 400 city and town clerks, funeral and nursing homes, hospitals, doctors and the state medical examiner. The first 23 sites will go online this month; 48 others will be connected by the end of the year.

The first phase is known as the Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS). Funded by the New York State Department of Health, the system shares vital statistics information with major players. Now in operation, it lets funeral directors, nursing home administrators, hospital workers, medical examiners, physicians and coroners work together electronically to complete death certificates by allowing them to key data into a World Wide Web application as well as gather case history information at their desktops.

George Dealy, the public sector practice manager for Sybase Professional Services, said there are several reasons why this project is so important and has attracted the attention of many other states.

"One of the main reasons is the interest of the federal government, which pays for the information on a per certificate basis," Dealy said. "The single largest cost implication of this data is Social Security and the benefits that are paid out."

The National Center for Health Statistics and the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, which covers vital registration in the 50 states, are working together on models of an electronic system to be used by each state. New York state is considered a leader in developing a model and functional standards for the electronic death certificate.

According to the center, vital statistics come from the official records of births, deaths, fetal deaths, marriages, divorces and adoptions. Each state is responsible for officially recording these events. The federal government may use the records for statistics through a cooperative agreement with the responsible agency in each state.

Death records are a critical part of the public health system. They serve as a major research tool in controlling epidemics. Vital records also are important in criminal investigations and for a number of state and federal health and welfare programs and private-sector firms, like insurance agencies.

About 95,000 deaths occur in New York state every year, and an additional 80,000 in New York City. Vital records registration in New York City is under legal control of the city's health department, not the New York State Department of Health.

One of the project's goals is to reduce the confusion of reporting jurisdictions, particularly for funeral directors licensed to do business in New York state but meeting different vital records regulations in the city.

Dealy noted that the spark to automate the process for death certificates came at the grass-roots level, when funeral directors in New York City demanded a better way of meeting the health system's demands. There was only one place in downtown Manhattan for them to go to file forms and get required signatures, and the line at the site often stretched around the block.

The EDRS is the first phase in replacing New York's paper-based system of managing vital statistics with a paperless, World Wide Web process. The re-engineering plan also includes birth certificates and marriage licenses.

The state's health department is now working with New York City's health department to combine the two systems into one.

A major challenge of putting the electronic death certificate system into practice is validating the signature of a physician or a coroner to certify the cause of death. New York has drafted regulations to accept digital signatures as legal authentication.

Once the issue is resolved, paper could be removed from the process. Security issues are handled with encryption and advanced security protocols.

Along with the company's professional services, the state is using Sybase technology to develop the EDRS user interface, manage the death certificate data and deploy the application to the Internet. The software used includes PowerBuilder, a suite of application development tools; PowerDynamo, a Web application server; and Adaptive Server, a primary database engine.

When asked about the challenges, Dealy said the project was not complicated, at least from the standpoint of user interface.

"In the project, the work flow pretty much follows the paper flow. In fact, that was one of the requirements in the request for proposals, that is, try not to disrupt the existing processes," Dealy said. "The [request for proposals] also called for the use of Perl scripts as the programming language, but we were able to convince them to consider other architectures for building the server side."

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