Health alert system is ready in Mo.

Kansas City, Mo., is using ESRI software to map clusters of disease outbreaks with its HealthSentry disease reporting system. Hospitals in the area can exchange data, too.

Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City's bioterrorism alert systems. The Missouri city's Health Department recently built an early warning system for public health alerts.

The city had a brush with anthrax in October 2001, when a local postal facility received a shipment of stamps from the Brentwood post office in Washington. The Kansas City postal site later tested positive for anthrax.

No one in the area came down with anthrax, but the scare prompted Kansas City health officials to speed development of a system to collect information about disease outbreaks from hospital emergency departments, clinics and doctors' offices. The collected data could indicate a possible public health problem, such as four hospitals in the area ordering anthrax tests in a two-day period, said Ron Griffin, manager of the city's communicable disease prevention and public health preparedness division.

The system, called HealthSentry, would then alert public health officials by pager and e-mail. The city launched HealthSentry in early April and has been tweaking it ever since, Griffin said.

HealthSentry uses ArcView and ArcInfo software from Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif., to map disease information.

Public health officials can see where types of laboratory tests have been performed. A high number of tests for a certain illness in a four-mile radius could indicate a possible bioterrorism attack.

Just the knowledge that medical facilities have run these tests would be an early warning signal that something was wrong, Griffin said.

Pinpoints the start

The system lets officials view disease outbreaks based on ZIP code, Griffin said. If 14 cases of salmonella show up in one or two ZIP codes, that information can help authorities track down the source of the outbreak, Griffin said.

The system's participants are mostly area hospitals, Griffin said. They use Pathnet clinical data software from Cerner Corp. of North Kansas City, Mo., which also served as the systems integrator on the project. HealthSentry runs under the IBM AIX operating system.

The hospitals send the data over a virtual private network to a central server in North Kansas City. Health Department officials also link to the server over a virtual private network. The department receives daily updates on disease reports and orders for lab tests from more than 80 percent of the hospitals in the area, he said.

Before the city developed HealthSentry, a nurse specializing in infectious diseases had to jot down information about each new case on a paper form and mail it to the Health Department. Now the time to send such information is reduced by three days, and the accuracy of the reporting is increased, Health Department officials said.

City health officials also can find out the variety and number of lab tests ordered each day. For example, hospitals report the number of respiratory cultures gathered in a day. Once the system gathers baseline information, health officials will be able to identify the patterns of testing and detect anomalies.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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