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February 15, 2018

Northwell can now detect flu hotspots 7 days earlier. Here's how.

Daily Briefing

    Northwell Health has developed a surveillance system that tracks flu admissions in almost real time, allowing the health system to better distribute resources to areas suffering from a spike in flu cases.

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    How the system works

    In an interview with HealthLeaders Media, Mark Swensen, Northwell's emergency management coordinator and a member of the team that developed the surveillance system, explained that Northwell uses "text-based searching" of patients' EHRs to identify patients with flu-like symptoms.

    The system tracks cases as soon as the data sync to a central database—typically within 24 hours, which is significantly faster than the typical one- to two-week lag on information from state and federal health officials.

    The system also tracks the home ZIP code of each patient, Swensen said, enabling Northwell "to determine where these cases are living, and in doing so we can determine which communities are more at risk."

    He added, "If we determined a community is more at risk we can notify schools, the local health department, and any number of agencies that can help with the education and the outreach."

    How up-to-date data changes Northwell's practices

    According to Mary Mahoney, the VP of emergency management for Northwell, the new surveillance system is a game-changer. She said it allows Northwell to answer questions such as, "Do we have enough masks to protect our patients and our families and our staff?" or "Do we have the appropriate doses of Tamiflu for them if we're going to be treating them with Tamiflu?"

    Swensen agreed, saying that the system allows a "real-time look at case rate uptick and physical location of cases that we had no visibility for before." He added that, thanks to the surveillance system, "We're able to see, probably six to seven days ahead of time, where those cases rates upticks are more affecting our facilities and where we can devote resources."

    And in the future, Swensen said, the system's capability could expand to track other diseases: "This is filtering information in the medical record," Swensen explained. "If we change that filter to look at some other syndrome or chief complaint, we could use it in other areas" (Commins, HealthLeaders Media, 2/7; CBS News, 2/1).

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