Web-based tools help CDC put medical know-how where it's needed

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to have a single, if challenging, job: acting as the public health department for the federal government. In this capacity, CDC interacts with hospitals and research institutions to solve medical conundrums. However, like many other federal agencies these days, CDC now has a homeland security role, namely handling possible acts of bioterrorism. This requires sharing information with state and local entities.

To accomplish both its jobs, CDC is using a collaboration platform from SiteScape Inc. of Maynard, Mass. 'We need to rapidly assemble and manage teams of experts, usually at a distance, to deal with a range of environmental, disaster and bioterror situations,' said Robb Chapman, IT specialist in bioterrorism systems with the National Center for Public Health Informatics.

CDC puts together ad hoc groups representing federal, local and state agencies, often scattered throughout the country. SiteScape's Web-based collaboration tools provide information to these teams and support content development. They also support the more routine, but still vital, public health interaction of CDC with universities and hospitals. Information used to be circulated in person, by phone or via e-mail. However, Web collaboration offers advantages over these methods. 'The system supports discussion threads that can be captured for later use,' Chapman said.

The system allows document sharing with version control. 'It's easy to arrange Web meetings or live interactive chats with built-in calendaring and scheduling for all the participants,' Chapman added. Task management keeps track of who has been assigned which task and the status of each task.

Anyone, from anywhere

Simplicity and user-friendliness were two key criteria in choosing the SiteScape solution. 'We needed a product that was Web-based on the user end, so anyone could use it from any platform,' Chapman said. Only a standard browser is necessary to access the collaboration tool.

At the same time, the tool had to be intuitive to use. 'We can't be training all the users in advance. It has to be obvious how they can accomplish what they need.' For this reason, the flexibility and customizability of the tool was important. 'We've found that the ability to remove functions, creating a simpler user interface, was very useful for us,' Chapman said.

Ease of use is important, but so is security. CDC routinely deals both with issues of national security and items of medical confidentiality. In fact, the collaboration is moving toward two versions to accommodate both roles. One version will use digital certificates for strong authentication, while the other will rely on the less stringent user name and password.

Chapman suggests that agencies considering collaboration tools examine their business practices first. 'You need to know how you are doing things now, so that you can see how a collaboration tool will change processes,' he said. In addition, agencies must recognize that the new solution will be a culture change for its users. 'Consult with your users for their needs and wants, so that they'll support the collaboration tool when it's implemented,' he said.

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