Emerging Technologies in Public Health Preparedness

By Este Geraghty, CMO & Health Solutions Director, Esri

The week before last, I attended the annual Preparedness Summit, organized by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) in Atlanta, Georgia. The event brought together over 1800 public health professionals from Federal, state and local governments across the country. It was interesting and inspiring to be surrounded by the passionate people who dedicate themselves to assuring our health security in a complex world, burdened with a nonstop stream of health-related threats.

I had the honor of moderating the second plenary session, focused on emerging technologies that are driving public health preparedness. NACCHO leadership asked me to ‘set the stage’ for the discussion by presenting the newest and most innovative technologies relevant to planning and responding, while also considering what is practical and realistic for public health departments. For that, I had to listen. So, I attended a number of sessions and heard some common themes.

Do more with less

No one in public health will be surprised by this one. It seems to be a constant that folks are being asked to do more with fewer resources. That translates to increasing expectations to anticipate problems, respond faster and guard against morbidity and mortality in the population with a smaller staff and decreasing financial resources. There is a strong need to work smarter instead of harder. For technology solutions, this means that value propositions need to be clear and time to implementation short.

Make sense of data

Everyone wants more data. And while we may not have all the data we want or need, there is certainly a great deal more data available than ever before. In the world of public health preparedness, making sense of large quantities of disparate data sets is a common problem. Analysts and leaders alike need new ways to integrate, analyze and understand massive data more quickly.

Communicate and collaborate across agencies and jurisdictions

The topic of public health preparedness, by nature, requires a multi-disciplinary approach that includes government departments of public health, law enforcement, and fire/EMS as well as private sector hospitals, clinics and their providers. Nonprofit organizations like the Medical Reserve Corps and the American Red Cross are also critical partners. To be most effective, all these entities need seamless ways to share authoritative information and coordinate their activities.

Special topics

As I reviewed and attended sessions, two special topics came up over and over again – Zika and the opioid epidemic. As we move from spring to summer, mosquito season switches into high gear. Whether we will have another serious bout with Zika, time will tell. But there can be no doubt that mosquito-borne disease is an ongoing concern. It was encouraging to hear that presenters were thinking about systems that can be easily translated to the next epidemic. From the technology perspective, configurable platforms can facilitate that process.

I admit I was initially surprised to see sessions on the schedule related to the opioid crisis. Yet on attending the presentations, it made perfect sense. From the preparedness perspective, it’s important to consider the impact of the crisis on poison control centers, hospital emergency rooms, urgent care centers and sadly, morgues. Preparedness experts think about these issues and plan for things like ensuring naloxone availability where it’s needed most and advanced coordination in a mass casualty event.

As I heard from all these experts and thought about the many ways that technology can help and support their work, I selected the following innovations to present on stage.

Simple Visualization Tools

Your data should be able to be viewed and explored quickly and easily – especially in the face of an emergency. There’s no excuse anymore for resorting to paper maps for things like evacuations, or static graphics or time consuming visualization methods. Many companies have embraced the concept of ‘the consumerization of IT’ which basically means that the technology systems you use at work should be as intuitive as the technologies you use at home, like your smart phone. Modern tools help organizations do visualization in 3 clicks or less. And when you interact with information dynamically, across all your visualizations, you may gain new insights and detect patterns and trends that can help you home in on problems and make adjustments promptly.

Analytic Tools

I think analytic tools are a key corollary to simple visualization. After all, as you visualize patterns and trends, you’re naturally going to ask more questions. You’ll want to know why things are happening and what the root causes are for a particular issue. You may wish to understand where your gaps in services or partners are or even predict what will happen next. Nowadays, there are tools that help you perform your analysis with a high level of automation, using larger datasets, and creating faster output. When you need answers, you need them now.

 Mobile Tools

Did you know that 80% of the global workforce is actually in the field somewhere? Still, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year on software solutions for the 20% of the office-based workforce. But now, that’s changing and companies have invested in developing mobile apps for the entire field operations workflow – like planning field activities and assignments, coordinating field personnel, navigating to sites, capturing data, and monitoring work status in the field. Mobile tools are critical for responders to capture and report information in real time. Look for technologies with an integrated family of mobile applications for quick and smooth implementation.

Community Engagement Tools

Governments around the world are seeking to use digital methods to enhance their community engagement agendas. There are many perspectives to this field that deserve some mention. One perspective is to engage citizens in surveillance activities, whether they are reporting animal or mosquito issues, pothole or graffiti problems, or providing on the ground information during a disaster. Citizens might also be engaged as participants in an emergency by responding to local alerts requesting CPR certified individuals to help before medical personnel can arrive. And finally, understanding population sentiments and concerns can add real-time information to your data assets. You can collect social media data of all kinds, using key words or tags related to an event or topic area. Perhaps people are Tweeting about mosquitoes in their neighborhood or posted a YouTube video of earthquake damage. Planners and responders can make great use of that information.

Drones

Drones offer a number of important benefits for the preparedness world. They are widely used to capture imagery over an area. In a dangerous place, drones could provide critical information that will help responders better prepare for the terrain or other circumstances, keeping them safer. Employing those same imaging functions, drones can also be used in search and rescue activities. But drones can do more than take pictures or video, they can act as transporters too. Drones can deliver vaccines, food, water, lab samples, blood products and medicines – all without risk to a flight crew. And they’re even being used to provide emergency medical services when equipt with things like automatic defibrillators and two-way radio and video functions to show bystanders how to help. Drones are even being tested for ambulance services and have successfully carried weights of up to 100 kilograms for over 30 minutes of flight time.

Getting to Success

Although my list of emerging technologies is nowhere near complete, it does provide a high level overview of those areas that suggest a significant return on investment for public health preparedness professionals.

If you’re going to consider investing in technology, consider this – according to a survey by the Boston Consulting Group, the number one factor for success in innovation is the speed of adopting new technology. Organizations need to get systems, applications and processes up and running quickly so they can see that return on their investment. So how do you get to success fast?

Configure First – One way to get quicker wins is to invest in technology that’s configurable. Try to avoid the temptation to customize. Configuring is not only quicker, cheaper and easier, but it also helps to prevent your applications from becoming outdated as technologies change.

Invest in a Platform – Think about investing in a platform. What’s the benefit here? Well a platform is a foundation. It’s the hardware and software on which all other applications, processes and other technologies run. You want a platform that recognizes common interface standards to help ensure that it works with your other mission critical systems seamlessly. Everything should be working together.

Ensure Scalability and Extensibility – Select a system architecture that’s capable of growing with you. Buy the right size for your current needs and expand when you’re ready. Your system should also have the flexibility to extend functionalities without impact to your internal structures or data flows.

Stay Trained and Up to Date – An issue that comes up all the time is developing expertise among your staff. Ongoing training is essential. Technologies are changing fast and if members of your staff don’t keep up with regular training, their knowledge and skills can become stale and you just won’t be getting your money’s worth. I also recommend maintaining a relationship with your software vendor to ensure that you understand all the tools and capabilities that come with your technology. You don’t want to allocate resources to new purchases when you may already own a solution. Nowadays, vendors are becoming a part of your multi-skilled teams, focused on outcome-driven projects and initiatives. Those teams also include your IT folks, the business or program leads, academics, and incubators. Take advantage of all those partnerships.

I remain humbled and inspired by the work that public health preparedness professionals do every day. As I reflect on my week in Atlanta, I think about that first plenary session and the words of Governor Tom Ridge who firmly stated that public health preparedness is a national security issue and should be funded like one. I know that most of my colleagues in public health wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. Yet, until that happens, remember that a wise investment in technology today can make your jobs easier, your work more effective, and your resources stretched further. Jump in and let modern technologies help you protect and save lives.