Ridge calls for a technological infusion to speed the creation of a central clearinghouse for health data

Ridge calls for a technological infusion to speed the creation of a central clearinghouse for health data

One of the main steps in creating a homeland security strategy is 'to fill the gaps.'
'TOM RIDGE

Homeland Security director Tom Ridge offered support'but few specifics'for development of a national medical intelligence database when he spoke at a homeland security conference in Washington late last year.

Ridge called the Health and Human Services Department's Health Alert Network a partially completed infrastructure. He recommended an 'infusion of technology into all 50 states and connecting all public health departments, so we have a central clearinghouse for all relevant public health information.'

The Health Alert Network provides secure e-mail and fax alerts to local health departments in all 50 states, Washington and Guam, said April Bell, a spokeswoman at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC is looking into the possibility of putting the network on the Web, she said.

The network received $30 million in congressional funding in 2000, Bell said. Through grants, CDC has funded computer hardware and communications equipment for 37 state health departments to link up.

Public health officials agreed that the health infrastructure needs work.

After Sept. 11, everyone felt the lack of connection in the public health system, said Elin Gursky, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. Public health officials are struggling to develop an information infrastructure that will link emergency rooms, physicians and public health departments, she said.

Such a system is no luxury, Gursky said, but is 'as urgent a need as missile defense. And we don't need a Cadillac. A good Ford will do just fine to get us started.'

Fatal neglect

'There's been a long-term neglect of the public health system infrastructure,' said Patrick Libbey, president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials and director of the Public Health and Social Services Department in Thurston County, Wash.

'We're behind the technology curve,' he said. Most disease reports from state and local health organizations still arrive at CDC on paper, he said.

And CDC has at least 80 databases that do not talk to each other, Gursky added.

One of the main steps in creating a homeland security strategy is 'to fill the gaps,' Ridge said. 'Where we find cracks in the system, we will work to repair them.'

Susan Neely, a homeland security spokeswoman, said, 'The best way to fill these gaps in is to build on the network in place.'

But Ridge and the administration are not at a point where they can give specifics on the modifications they will make to the Health Alert Network.

'We're at the point of saying, here's the need, here's the idea,' Neely said. 'Now we have to figure out how to do it. It will be part of the fiscal 2003 budget, that much we know.'

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