Dodgy data and the COVID response

In last week's blog we took a look at a bit of a bungle over in the UK, where the use of an old version of Excel by Public Health England has been blamed for almost 16,000 positive COVID-19 cases being left off the official list for a week, potentially affecting up to 50,000 people.

The head of the National Health Service's Test and Trace program, Dido Harding, is now being asked to consider her position as the ramifications of the bungle continue. The UK is also struggling with wider aspects of Test and Trace, according to Digital Health News, which reports that just 68 per cent of close contacts of those who had tested positive were able to be reached last week.

Digital Health News is also reporting that the country's Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts has written to its health minister saying what is now being called Excelgate was “not an IT glitch and to describe it as such trivialises the issue”.

“This is the symptom of a more serious, chronic failure of the systems and processes,” the letter states. “An out of date version of Excel should not be used to transfer vital data sets in the real world.”

And yet it is, as Pulse+IT readers can attest. We ran one of our regular polls last week asking whether readers were aware of anyone still using Excel for clinical purposes. While our polls can't be called scientific, the answer was pretty overwhelming. 87 per cent knew of the practice, while just 13 per cent were in the dark.

Over in the US, where numerous bungles have been a feature of that country's disastrous response to the pandemic, questions are being asked about commitments to data quality and safe handling at the very highest levels. Mistrust by the Trump government of America's scientific institutions, particularly the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), appears to have spilled over to people with previously unimpeachable reputations.

Along with Anthony Fauci, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (WHCTF) Deborah Birx has been one of the most prominent scientists leading the battle against the virus, but in this investigation by Science magazine into her handling of systems for capturing COVID-related data, it appears that Dr Birx has made a serious misjudgement.

By ignoring the CDC's existing system for collecting hospital data – built over 15 years and described in the article as “far from perfect” – and instead choosing to hand responsibility over to a private company called TeleTracking Technologies, what appears to be now in place is “an error-ridden and unreliable filter on hospital needs that sometimes displays nonsensical data”. Sounds like the Trump presidency in a nutshell.

Closer to home and we hear that the new CEO of Australia's Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) has been chosen. Staff were informed yesterday, although there has been no official announcement as yet, that Terry Sweeney has secured the gig. Formerly managing director of IBM Watson Health for Asia, Dr Sweeney has flown somewhat under the radar in the local industry although he does describe himself as a global digital health entrepreneur. He featured in a since removed article in the Adelaide Advertiser just this week about a new $100 million investment fund for digital health, but how this will fit with the CRC job we don't know.

The job seems to be a difficult one as the new CEO will be the third in three years. The CRC hasn't got much to show for itself in that time besides an interesting project it's running in the aged care sector to create a minimum data set and advance the sector on the road to interoperability.

Michael Costello, who was holding the fort at the CRC while a permanent CEO was found, is expected to return to his regular gig at the Australian Digital Health Agency. We hear that Dr Sweeney also went for the top job at the agency but missed out to Amanda Cattermole, who is now settling into the driver's seat.

Elsewhere this week, the agency's industry offer for the specialist market had its first success, with Software for Specialists (S4S) integrating its Audit4 system to the My Health Record. S4S is one of 10 companies taking part in the offer, which aims to boost MyHR use among medical specialists in private practice. There was also more movement on eScripts, with the fully conformant version now being used in the wild, and active script lists to come online in the next few months. We'll have more on that next week, along with an update on the secure messaging industry offer from ADHA.

In the meantime, our poll for this week asks:

Is the Digital Health CRC living up to its promise?

Vote here and feel free to leave your comments below.

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