New N.C. Monitoring System Can Help Early Detection Of Avian Flu - InformationWeek

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New N.C. Monitoring System Can Help Early Detection Of Avian Flu

It is the first statewide monitoring system that collects data from all hospitals that have 24-hour emergency room departments.

As the U.S. and other countries prepare for a possible global pandemic of Avian flu, North Carolina recently deployed what officials are calling "a 24-hour public health radar system" to give early warning of disease outbreaks and possible acts of bio-terrorism.

North Carolina is the first state to roll out a statewide public health monitoring system that collects "chief complaint" data from all hospitals that have 24-hour emergency room departments, says North Carolina State Health Director Dr. Leah Devlin. The new North Carolina Hospital Emergency Surveillance Systems, or NCHESS, was developed over the last 18 months through a $3.4 million, 5-year federal grant.

"This has been a very rapid rollout," Devlin says. Right now, of the 109 emergency departments in North Carolina, 61 hospitals are in production, and nearly all the rest are in "late testing" stages, she says. All will be in full production by April 2006, she says.

While public health departments in some other states, including New York, have also begun collecting and analyzing "real-time" symptom data from ER departments, most of those efforts have been limited to hospitals in certain so-called hot-spot areas, such as densely populated New York City, says Devlin.

At N.C. emergency departments, information about patient's chief complaints—such as influenza-like symptoms, neurological disturbances, and gastro-intestinal problems—are entered via a secure Web connection into NCHESS. That data gets downloaded every 12 hours by software provided by Solucient LLC to the state's public health department system, where it is analyzed for unusual patterns, such as clusters of flu-like symptoms occurring outside of flu season.

Once the N.C. analysis red-flags an unusual event, state public health officials use software provided by MercuryMD Inc. to electronically investigate further, says Devlin. The MercuryMD software allows public health officials to electronically access hospital lab and other reporting systems that contain additional information, such as diagnoses and test results, she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a plan for next year to expand its BioSense system to many civilian hospitals in hot spot or "bio-watch" regions of the U.S. That system currently collects symptom data from emergency rooms at Department of Veterans Affairs and military hospitals. The expansion of BioSense to collect real-time data from civilian hospital is part of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's overall plan to improve the nation's bio-surveillance of terrorism and possible diseases outbreaks like Avian flu.

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