Patient Data Privacy is Impacting the Accuracy of Covid-19 Reporting

Data, and lots of it, is crucial in tracking the spread of COVID-19, identifying high-risk populations, and crafting the best care. Exchange barriers and strict privacy protections of patient data are slowing this process down. To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, these insights are more important than ever but still terribly difficult to access.

“Despite billions of dollars in federal investment in digitizing the US healthcare system, aggregating information such as test results and potential cases was done in a patchwork way, with data sharing often occurring via fax or phone,” Researchers for a US Department of Health and Human Services study said. “Had electronic data sharing been in place, hospitals could have quickly transmitted COVID-19 testing results and syndromic surveillance data to public health agencies to supplement their testing and provide greater clarity on disease prevalence and incidence.”

Researchers are scrambling to piece together the number of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, the demographic data of those individuals, the number treated in a hospital, and the length of treatment time. Even with federal directives requiring the sharing of coronavirus-related data, privacy barriers and holes in communication are presenting huge problems in data collection.

To find the most common barriers faced by hospitals when reporting patient data, researchers from Harvard Business School, University of San Francisco Department of Medicine, and Indiana University’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health studied the 2018 American Hospital Association data.

When compared to current COVID-19 projections on total infections, hospitalization, and hospital bed capacity, the researchers found that the largest barrier was digital data exchange. In fact, 41.2 percent of hospitals said public health agencies were unable to receive data electronically. Meanwhile, 31.9 percent of hospitals reported experiencing issues with digital interfaces or were unable to upgrade to better software due to cost.

Other barriers included an inability to extract EHR data, properly separate data standards (due to patient privacy), and the lack of a platform to send data.

“COVID-19 has shown that lack of data can hinder pandemic management efforts,” concluded the authors. “Test results and syndromic data should flow seamlessly from hospitals to public health agencies. Policymakers should prioritize investment in public health IT infrastructure along with broader health system information technology for both long-term COVID-19 monitoring as well as future pandemic preparedness.”

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