Health + Tech | Tracking the flu season with technology
I have been paying close attention to the reports of the effects of the flu season in the United States, understanding that although we may not get the figures locally as steadfastly as the US reports them, we generally face similar issues during this period.
The flu season normally begins in October and goes until about March, so we are now in the middle of it, and the United States Centre for Disease Control reported that it hasn't even peaked yet despite reports of at least 30 children dead and many adults affected.
I have two primary reasons for paying close attention to this yearly phenomenon. I am at the age where I am considered high risk for complications, and I believe that with technology, we can have more efficient tracking and, therefore, quicker intervention as required to reduce the potential loss of life and productivity from the flu.
Epidemiological information can be available at the fingertips of the health authorities using general forecasting and tracking, which can be done with the health technology that we now have available.
In this way, real-time information on diseases currently affecting the population can be obtained quickly. If we apply this to the flu season, the Ministry of Health would have the ability to detect exactly when cases of influenza begin to rise, what areas have most cases, age group, gender, predominant symptoms, and medication prescribed among others.
Even if some persons do not visit their private doctor, health centre, or hospital for flu treatment and decide to treat with over-the-counter medication, the pharmacy information management system can provide data on the types and quantities of drugs purchased and alert the pharmacists when there is an increase in what is normally consumed. The Government can have easy access to this information from public and private pharmacies.
In addition, with electronic medical records, health personnel would be able to quickly identify people who have flu symptoms and may also have other illnesses that put them at high risk for complications.
Having a complete medical history, regardless of where one seeks care, can make the difference between life and death, and it allows the healthcare professional more complete information on which to make a decision.
There is no substitute for accurate, comprehensive, and accessible data in decision making. All the data necessary to have real-time health information are available, however, in disparate databases.
These can, and, hopefully, soon, will be accessible for consolidation and decision support. When Jamaica experienced the Chik-V and the Riverton Fire, health insurance companies were able to quickly see the resulting health information in real time through their electronic health claims.
This kind of database allows for a full and complete picture for decision making. If, for example, there is a family history of influenza-related death because of a complication associated with a non-communicable disease, the digitised health system would enable this kind of linkage and, therefore, more fulsome decisions regarding care and treatment.
Imagine the kind of data we can obtain to manage the health sector if all public hospitals were so linked.
This information could allow the health authorities to plan and forecast all the tools and supplies they may need to effectively respond to an outbreak or an increase in a potentially life-threatening condition.
Resources can, for example, be directed to a specific locale if that is where most cases show up or specific tools for a particular age group - ventilators, for example, for children who may be in respiratory distress because of the flu - in a certain area.
Health resources can be shared and/or redistributed to the areas most in need. Inventory, including acquisition of medication, can be managed based on the need indicated from the information received through the system, and targeted health education can be done for early prevention rather than just treatment and containment once cases begin to increase significantly.
We can take significant steps to take the guess work out of planning and putting in place our early interventions by using the technology available to us. I am happy that the Ministry of Health seems to be moving in this direction.