In a recent Business Insider article, author Aaron Short, describes the shortages and shortcomings of available data to guide and inform actions by providers, policymakers, and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is precisely the topic my colleague, Dr. Mark Stephens, and I covered in a recent commentary published in the American Journal of Managed Care.
The United States relies primarily on The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) tracking and reporting of disease spread and effects. However, the CDC depends on the states’ health departments to collect and submit their data in a timely and accurate way. The problems with that process have exposed the country's coronavirus tracking system as "archaic," according to CDC Director, Robert Redfield. In a New York Times piece, Dr. Redfield’s remedy for this national deficiency is “a modern, highly capable data system that can do predictive analysis.”
With the spotlight on this lack of a centralized, reliable health data system, we turn to the topic of big data. What is big data and why might it make a difference in the COVID-19 pandemic? Big data means having real-time access to current and historical data from multiple sources and the ability to analyze those data in real time. Right now, big data could help identify potential clues about the impact of COVID-19—for example, by providing a clearer understanding about those who may be most at risk for the worst outcomes or helping to describe how providers have been treating patients with COVID-19 symptoms, even if tests confirming positive cases have been absent.
The bottom line is that big data is used for critical decision making in just about any coordinated effort in our society, be it economic strategy or the operation of humanitarian efforts. However, it has been woefully absent in our nation’s response to COVID-19. Furthermore, it has been missing from public health and health policy planning more generally, despite billions spent by the US government on the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, passed in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment ACT.
Once the acute phase of the pandemic slows, it will be important to discuss why, after more than a decade and tens of billions of dollars, many of the nation’s providers and health systems are not better equipped to use valuable patient- and population-level data in real time to inform important treatment and management decisions.