E. Coli Outbreak in New Jersey?
North Bergen, NJ, May 22, 2008 ‐‐ Over the course of two hours on a recent Friday, 20 people arrived, one by one, for emergency care at the Palisades Medical Center here. Each separately complained of various gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea and diarrhea. A coincidence? Or the harbinger of a brewing epidemic, potentially threatening a larger swath of the Garden State?
Fortunately, the onslaught of patients was actually part of a disaster drill conducted by the medical facility that also involved the Hudson Regional Health Commission, the public health agency serving parts of Northern New Jersey. The purported scenario was an E. coli outbreak at a local restaurant, and the patients were actually volunteers from a nearby high school pretending to be ill.
One goal of the emergency preparedness exercise was to give the medical facility and the regional public health agency experience using EpiCenter™, a community health surveillance system recently introduced by health data management specialists Health Monitoring Systems (www.hmsinc.com) and adopted by the Hudson Regional Health Commission and other public health agencies across the country. The EpiCenter system collects electronic data in real time from healthcare‐providing organizations, such as hospital emergency department registrations, and then processes the information through advanced analytical techniques to identify unusual patterns emerging.
That early warning of developing threats to public health can give public health professionals a valuable head start in recognizing and managing disease spread and epidemic outbreaks, as well as possible bioterrorism, a surge in criminal assaults and even tainted street drugs. In the North Bergen emergency preparedness exercise, EpiCenter’s built‐in statistical tools were able to detect an unusual pattern of gastrointestinal cases developing. The system issued notifications of a possible E. coli outbreak to the appropriate regional public health watchdogs, who in turn contacted the medical center.
“Drills are an important part of our ability to be prepared for a range of emergencies that might come up,” said Carrie Nawrocki, Hudson Regional Health Commission epidemiologist. “It is crucial that we are alerted quickly when unusual events occur so we can take the right steps to manage the outbreak, including working with local health departments and notifying other hospitals in the region.” Added Nawrocki, “Some hospitals might have difficulty recognizing patterns of incoming patient complaints. That’s quite understandable given the activity level in emergency departments, especially on a very busy day like our drill. We need a reliable tool to see emerging problems, and that’s why EpiCenter is so critical to us. We were delighted with how EpiCenter performed ‐‐ exactly as desired.” The actual processing of the test data was handled on a parallel version of EpiCenter set up specifically for the drill by Health Monitoring Systems.
Doreen McSharry, Palisades Medical Center’s safety and infection control director, and Howard Wassinger from the Center’s IT department, planned the drill. McSharry noted that the “exercise not only tested our ability to recognize a potential outbreak, but also our capability to manage an unusually large influx of potentially infectious patients. Exercises of this nature are performed every year at hospitals and medical facilities throughout the country in accordance with Joint Commission standards. We were pleased to work with Health Monitoring Systems on this year’s drill.”
Steve DeFrancesco, Health Monitoring chief information officer, added that as the open source EpiCenter is being used by increasing numbers of public health agencies, Health Monitoring Systems stands ready to assist in other disaster drills. “Seeing the results of EpiCenter’s sophisticated, accurate and fast data analysis can be reassuring to epidemiologists and others in public health and the healthcare professionals in their regions. We’re eager to build additional partnerships in the public health arena.”
About Health Monitoring Systems, Inc.
HMS (http://www.hmsinc.com) is a privately held company specializing in healthcare data analysis. The company processes and analyzes health‐related data in real time via a Software‐as‐a‐Service (SaaS) approach. Using this approach, HMS enables clients to increase their understanding of regional health conditions, improve quality and efficiency, and ensure regulatory compliance.
The company’s EpiCenter™ system is a first of its kind community health surveillance system for public health. HMS also offers Mergence™, an open source healthcare data integration engine. Using these products, HMS collects and analyzes data from more than 300 healthcare facilities across the country.
Health Monitoring Systems
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