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IBM Debuts Bio-Surveillance Software

The Internet system can track a hospital's patient care or a community's warning signs for disease or bioterrorism.

After working for more than a year with input from several U.S. hospitals and government agencies, IBM made available last week new software to help track and manage public-health crises--such as bioterrorism--and other medical challenges, including quality of care.

The new software, called WebSphere Business Integration for Healthcare Collaborative Network, can help hospitals and public-health agencies create and tap into electronic networks that analyze clinical data for unusual medical patterns that could give early indications of possible disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, or noncompliance to institutional best practices for quality care.

The software was developed as part of the Healthcare Collaboration Network demonstration project, sponsored by health-industry organization eHealth, says Michael Stevens, IBM HCN marketing manager. Among the hospitals that provided access to aggregate clinical data in the development and testing of the network software are New York Presbyterian Hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Wishard Memorial Hospital. Government agencies that provided input and tested the system include the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. For instance, the FDA provided information about drug interactions, and CMS about quality-of-care measures.

IBM says that pilot project has concluded, but the company is in ongoing discussions with each hospital and U.S. government agency about their further use of HCN.

In general, hospitals that use the software internally for quality-of-care purposes can provide the network with automatic feeds of real-time data from their clinical systems, such as lab, pharmacy, or claims systems, which contain symptom and diagnosis codes. The HCN software can help the hospital analyze that data and set alerts for unusual patterns or variables, such as when a patient has an abnormal lab results or a when a heart-attack patient wasn't administered a beta-block drug within a certain time frame after being admitted to the hospital. This can help doctors provide earlier intervention to patients, Stevens says.

In a regional setting for public health bio-surveillance, the software can help public-health officials analyze clinical data patterns from nearby hospitals, for instance, to determine whether an unusually high number of off-season, flu-type symptoms or antibiotic prescriptions among patients living within certain ZIP codes could indicate the outbreak of a disease or possible bioterrorism.

Among the first government customers for HNC is Canada, which will deploy the IBM software--first in Winnipeg, Manitoba--as part of that nation's bio-surveillance initiatives.

IBM's software supports a variety of standards, so clinical data can be used in the network regardless of hospitals' various computer systems or applications. Also, data continues to reside in the hospital's own existing clinical databases, so it's not collected in a centralized database, Stevens says.

"What makes this an extremely powerful tool is that it allows many disparate applications to communicate," says Jim Gabler, health-care sector research director at Gartner. However, even though HCN can bring together many disparate data flows, many hospitals in the United States still rely heavily on paper-based processes, so for them, that data is not easily accessible, which also hinders public-health bio-surveillance efforts, he says.

On the positive side, though, it's another incentive for hospitals to migrate to the digital age, Gabler says. In health care, he points out, "you've got Star Wars and Pony Express next to each other."

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