National public health network suffers hiccups in emergencies

National public health network suffers hiccups in emergencies

Rep. Tom Davis says he is skeptical of the Web's use as a vehicle for health info.

Representatives of state, local and federal public health and IT organizations told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy late last year that they weren't getting the information they need to thwart bioterrorism.

Subcommittee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health's Infrastructure: Every Health Department Fully Prepared; Every Community Better Protected, noted serious deficiencies in sharing information.

CDC estimated that 68 percent of U.S. counties have high-speed Internet access and can receive broadcast messages, but only 13 states have high-speed connections to all their counties.

The existing public health information-sharing systems are CDC's Health Alert Network, Epidemic Information Exchange (Epi-X) and National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS). When fully deployed, the Health Alert Network will link local, state and federal agencies to public and private health care providers. It will also function as the platform for Epi-X, NEDSS and other applications. About 700 health officials participate in Epi-X. NEDSS will make possible electronic instead of paper reports.

But Rock Regan, CIO of Connecticut and president of the National Association of State CIOs, expressed reservations about HAN's setup, saying it is 'used to broadcast information from the CDC out to the states and localities' yet is not interactive and lacks robustness. One state's HAN connection had to shut down in the midst of a biohazard emergency, he said, because air conditioning for the servers failed.

Regan proposed using the Justice Department's Integrated Justice Information System as a blueprint for disseminating public health information. In each state, police agencies, corrections departments and the judicial system are linked through integration points to FBI, federal correctional and national judicial systems.

The public health infrastructure relies too much on paper reporting and phone calls, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Shays said he witnessed the aftermath of a chemical leak on an Amtrak train.

'What struck me was that the health department people and hospital workers were treated like stepchildren,' he said.

Davis said he was wary of the CDC systems' reliance on the Web, which can be temporarily disabled by usage spikes during a crisis.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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