KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The federal government is teaming up with a medical software maker to better track the spread of swine flu nationally, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday.
Cerner Corp., which makes and sells electronic medical record systems to hospitals and doctors' offices, will collect data from its records to provide information on cases of what scientists call the H1N1 virus to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health departments.
Such information, now based on individual interviews and paper records, currently can take days to be collected.
"This will give us real-time data with a snapshot across the country," Sebelius said. "We can monitor spikes in disease, we can monitor which age group is being affected, who the most seriously ill patients are and really be able to deploy resources much more strategically."
She said the program, which Cerner is paying for and which will last until the end of next year, would also provide a blueprint for tracking future disease outbreaks or responding to natural disasters.
U.S. health authorities hope to give swine flu vaccinations to more than half the 300 million-plus population in just a few months. The vaccinations began Monday in a few states, mainly to health care workers. At an afternoon appearance in St. Louis, Sebelius strongly encouraged people to get the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines as they become available.
Officials with Kansas City-based Cerner, whose clients represent 30 percent of the U.S. health care system, said 700 facilities in 46 states have agreed to participate in the project and more than 200 are already submitting information to the government. They added that the information doesn't name patients and complies with federal medical privacy laws.
Mark Hoffman, Cerner's executive vice president for life sciences, said the company developed the public reporting system in Kansas City during the national spate of anthrax scares eight years ago.
"I think it's a big step forward," Hoffman said, adding the company is open to coordinating with other record system providers.
Sebelius, speaking at a health conference sponsored by Cerner, said the project is a good example of how switching patient records from paper to computer can radically change how health care in provided. The Obama administration has made electronic medical records a priority, wanting all Americans to have one by 2013 and providing incentives for providers to invest in record systems.
She said the ability of electronic records to quickly analyze patient data to identify poor treatment, unnecessary procedures and other hidden costs is necessary for the many health care reform measures President Obama wants to implement.
"You can't do it based on anecdote," she said. "You can't make fundamental changes in the system without having baseline (information) and beginning to measure results. That's part of what health information technology will enable us to do."
Later in the day, Sebelius toured the St. Louis University Center for Vaccine Development, one of eight centers funded by the National Institutes of Health to conduct the vaccine trials.
Sebelius said she'd like to see well more than 50 percent of the population get flu vaccinations. "We're seeing a far increased demand for seasonal flu vaccine and hope that will be the case with H1N1," she said.
Researchers acknowledged that clinical trials of the vaccines are still going on, but said no corners have been cut on safety. "There were no shortcuts taken in developing this vaccine," said Robert Belshe, the center's director.