My phone rang at 5 in the morning this weekend. I was happy to take the call because it was from the people whose work will lead to the defeat of this pandemic. The call was not from a politician, and certainly not from someone reacting to something they read on Facebook. It was from the IT department of a medical lab focused on delivering critically-needed COVID-19 testing kits. The issue was that three separate entities needed help coming together to exchange data accurately and quickly. The experience represents an important point: since the start of all this, medical lab-related IT teams have been answering the urgent call to action just like first responders. IT teams ensure that the infrastructure, processes, and systems that enable the collection of data continue to keep important work flowing, and in this conflict, information is key to winning the war.
With the Utmost Urgency
Back to the phone call. The task was to focus on ensuring that COVID-19 testing kits were shipped to the proper locations, that orders and results were transmitting seamlessly to minimize data-entry errors, and that turnaround time was decreased in routing data to analytics and lab systems. Then ultimately, this critical information needed to be delivered quickly to government and health officials to help them make real-time decisions in the battle against COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a cunning, elusive and overwhelming virus. But it cannot beat the technologies that US labs deploy to capture, format, analyze, and report data.
Stepping back, here’s the bigger picture that U.S. HealthTek and others saw as early as February: anytime there is a medical crisis, it’s immediately susceptible to misinformation, assumptions, and the great unknown. In situations like this, the data and the information derived from it becomes critical. That data begins to take shape thanks to the men and women working in medical labs across the globe and IT departments are the integral factor to corral that data, turning it into valuable information that can be shared universally. IT has always been the best tool for gaining information; no one can argue that, wherever they are on the political spectrum or how they feel about the state of the world. In the beginning of this pandemic, the data wasn’t there — or at least it wasn’t conclusive enough to even start to chart a path forward. There wasn’t enough known to make good decisions, and so the healthcare industry had to quickly leverage their greatest asset: data.
Data is best thought of as what is on the spreadsheet. A good analogy is found in baseball: you have a team of individual players and many ways to quantify them: hits, strikes, RBIs, etc. Those data points are dropped into columns on a spreadsheet. The coach then turns that data into information, which impacts decisions that lead to winning: batting order, whom to bench, who should be pitching, what pitches to throw, everything. The question of determining something like the COVID-19 death-rate percentage first depends on an accurate-as-possible count of those who have been infected by the virus, then counting recoveries versus deaths. Information is then pulled by breaking data down into categories – for example, noting that COVID-19 is fatal for 9% of people in their 70s, 13% percent for those over 80 years old, etc. Where does all this information come from? Lab IT.
How We Will Beat This
I’m working on logistics for a few labs in a state where they are already re-opening the economy even when cases and fatalities are still on the rise. There is therefore an urgency in those labs in knowing how many tests kits they can get out, how they get back to the lab, and how quickly the lab can make that patient data available to stakeholders. Decision making comes from policy makers at local, state, and federal levels such as the Departments of Health, the CDC, and even Homeland Security. All these consumers of information perform much-needed statistical analyses to define policy that impacts every person in every town of America, and throughout the world. For these decisions to be made intelligently and to the greatest benefit, the data and information provided must be standardized and delivered via IT-based tools and infrastructure.
People can complain that this pandemic is over-hyped, but Lab driven data is empirical and impartial. This is not just a biological challenge, it’s an informational challenge. We will beat COVID-19 because of our collective ability to gather information and make meaningful decisions for ourselves, our neighbors, and our families. And IT is critical to that whether people realize it or not. They are heroes too.