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Federal Government Proposes National Health Data Network

The proposed network would let federal, state, and local public health officials more quickly identify bioterrorism attacks and better coordinate defense and treatment.
During a security conference Tuesday, Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said the federal government is seeking a national plan to build a "permanent infrastructure" that would connect all 50 states and public health departments. Part of the plan includes developing a central clearinghouse to allow easier sharing of relevant public health information among doctors, public health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The development of the health data network would build on the CDC's partially completed Health Alert Network infrastructure, Ridge says. Right now, the Health Alert Network lets the CDC send information to public health officials via the Internet, but not all states and local agencies have continuous access to the Web, in part because of inadequate IT funding for those public health departments. Plus, the network tends to support one-way communication from the CDC, such as Webcasts on anthrax, rather than interaction between the CDC and public health officials. Some public health officials say the idea for a more robust health data network is a good one, but one that's not likely to happen without substantial funding from the federal government.

New Mexico's public health department has been working on its own Health Alert Network infrastructure for about 18 months, says Kevin Bersell, New Mexico public health's HAN coordinator. "We've done a huge amount of work, and we're ahead of a lot of states on this," he says. The barrier for many states and county agencies is the expense of high-speed Internet access, which is one of the HAN standards required by the CDC. "Not only is it expensive for the communication lines, but staffing is an issue, too," Bersell says. Plus, states can't compete with IT salaries in the commercial sector. "An IT expert in the private sector makes more than the highest-paid person in a public health agency," Bersell says.

While no details were made available, Ridge indicated that the federal government would pony up more funding to create a nationwide health data network. "It's already out there. It's a work in progress. But with appropriate funding, the coordination between the state, the federal, and the local governments, we can accelerate it and bring ... it to closure a lot quicker than had been anticipated. But that's very much on our minds."