Gulf Coast region gets health monitoring system

Federal health officials and a Wisconsin medical IT company have set up a daily syndromic surveillance system for many of the hospitals and public health centers in the Gulf Coast disaster region to monitor for early warnings of disease outbreaks.

The Critical Infrastructure Data System, an online resource management and surveillance reporting system developed by EMSystem of West Allis, Wis., is being used to track medical resources and to monitor daily symptoms reported from hospitals, community health centers, mental health facilities and federal intake centers for evacuees in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, company officials said today.

Syndromic surveillance systems monitor the real-time reporting of symptoms?such as fevers, coughs, pain and vomiting?to help identify outbreaks of illness. Typically, they are developed by public health officials to monitor real-time reports from hospital emergency rooms, health centers, doctors' offices and drug stores. The monitoring agencies look for unusual spikes of activity that could signal a disease outbreak.

In the Gulf Coast region, the surveillance information is being collected on forms developed by federal officials that ask for data on respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological and other symptoms reported by patients that day, said Elaine Schweitzer, applications manager for EMSystem.

The data is being amassed by EMSystem online and delivered to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies.

The EMSystem reporting system is not deployed in every health facility or hospital, however, and there may be other public-health syndromic surveillance systems operating in the Gulf Coast disaster region as well, Schweitzer said.

EMSystem has donated its services to the U.S. Public Health Service in the Katrina-affected region. The bulk of EMSystem's services relate to management of resources, such as beds, equipment and personnel, but the system also enables syndromic surveillance capabilities.

"The Critical Infrastructure Data System developed by [Health and Human Services] for EMSystem in a matter of days after the hurricane has allowed us to access vital critical infrastructure status in the affected states and envision a system that makes us better prepared for future incidents," Capt. Roberta Proffitt Lavin of the public health service's Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, said in a press release.

Public health officials have warned that the thousands of evacuees who fled from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and are living in emergency shelters may be especially vulnerable to infectious diseases.

EMSystem's IT applications currently are used in many hospital emergency departments nationwide, and have been used by many public health authorities for syndromic surveillance, including a nationwide Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pilot project conducted with the CDC, Schweitzer added.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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