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In The Dog Days of Summer, Health IT Helps Fight a Deadly Epidemic

August 21, 2014
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One of the best things about covering health IT is that there is hardly ever a shortage of topics to write about. Rarely is there a significant amount of time in between newsworthy events that might relate to the various subcategories of healthcare technology that we at HCI report on.

 I even was joking with a colleague the other day that the recent Cerner/Siemens big merger was probably the hit of the summer for us—but before you blink, that will be old news, and something else major will hit the wire. And even if there isn’t a super hot-button issue, there’s so much going on in the industry that CIOs and CMIOs might be interested in (if you were to ask them, probably too much is going on!)

With all that being said, if there is a slow period or two in this industry, it is July/August, and December around Christmas time. (In a completely unrelated health IT note, Americans have spent some $61 billion on online travel booking this summer alone, up 15 percent from last year). Needless to say, in the summer months, Americans are on the move. As such, I’m going to take this time to blog about one of my favorite health IT moments of the summer that doesn’t have to do with the traditional topics that we’re used to covering.  

When I first read about the Ebola outbreak in Africa earlier this year, I became quickly saddened. Day after day it seemed as if the death toll would climb, as there simply was nothing that could be done to stop this deadly virus that has taken the lives of more than 1,300 people in West Africa, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There was even a scare in the U.S., when for the first time ever, an Ebola patient was treated in the country.

What does this have to do with healthcare technology? The answer may surprise you: a disease-tracking website developed by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers has been able to track the spread of Ebola in real time, often before new cases are reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, an AP/Politico report said that the online tool, HealthMap, flagged a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" in forested areas of southeastern Guinea nine days before WHO announced the epidemic proportions of Ebola's presence in the region.

HealthMap uses algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, infectious-disease physicians' social networks, and other sources around the clock to detect and track disease outbreaks. Sophisticated software filters irrelevant data, classifies the relevant information, identifies diseases, and maps their locations with the help of experts. This obviously serves as a big help for scientists and healthcare workers who are getting the information that a disease is starting in a specific corner of the world before public health does.

HealthMap is operated by a group of 45 researchers, epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children’s Hospital. The tool was introduced in 2006 with a core audience of public health specialists, but that changed as the system evolved and the public became increasingly hungry for information during the swine flu pandemic, according to the AP/Politico report. “In many parts of the world, we’re dealing with limited public health infrastructure, so in many cases, some the information coming from these social networks, from local news stories is the first time that we know about an event that’s unfolding,,” John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap and director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Informatics Program, said in an interview with PBS.

Ebola map, courtesy of

This tool reminds me of a story I wrote about last year, when the Indiana Network for Patient Care (INPC), a city-wide clinical informatics network, created the ability to track data from physician offices and medical facilities across Indiana, providing public health officials in the state with early warning of outbreaks of influenza and other communicable diseases.

While that network collected routine registration data (age, gender, reason for visit) from patients at the point of care rather than scouring social media and news sites, the idea is pretty similar. And it’s not a stretch to think that mapping the Ebola outbreak may ease future health crises.