Can Plucky Little Data Company Replace CDC In Middle Of Pandemic? Guess We'll Find Out!
It's been an entire week since hospitals had to stop reporting their COVID-19 data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and instead send all that information to a new Department of Health and Human Services database called "HHS Protect." The change was mandated just a few days before the changeover, and nobody knows yet how well that transition is going to work. After hospital use data vanished last week, HHS rolled out a new site to make such data public, but Yr Dok Zoom is not a medical data guy, so I couldn't tell you how well the new dashboard, called the Coronavirus Data Hub, compares to its CDC predecessor.
But infectious disease specialists are worried about the wisdom of switching to a new data-collection system in the middle of a goddamned pandemic, as Talking Points Memo reports. They aren't at all sure that TeleTracking, the relatively small data company in Pittsburgh that built the new HHS system, is necessarily up to the challenge of replacing the CDC system that had until last week been handling all the data. Maybe TeleTracking, which has never taken on a contract of this scope, will rise to the challenge and everything will be fine! Or maybe the data will be flawed in ways that won't be discovered for months, but what are the odds of that happening with a new system rolled out in a rush?
If it all goes pear-shaped, we might not even know for months, anyway, unless that new HHS dashboard goes blank or starts asking "SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?"
The pros that TPM talked to didn't seem especially confident that TeleTracking could take over the job, but that could be because they're just afraid of success, or of sudden data fuckery at a time when Donald Trump has been complaining that COVID-19 stats make him look bad.
HHS Protect replaces a 15-year-old CDC system called the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), which, as we've noted, had its shortcomings, although many critics of NHSN wanted it improved, not thrown out with Donald Trump's disgusting orange-tinted bathwater and replaced with an all-new system rolled out by a relatively unknown vendor. Especially not at this particular moment, when the pandemic is surging and hospitals kind of have their hands full with sick people.
The Infectious Disease Society of America, which sounds like a fun club, also issued a statement last week calling the data changeover "troubling" and calling on the data collection function to stay with CDC. The statement warned that
Placing medical data collection outside of the leadership of public health experts could severely weaken the quality and availability of data, add an additional burden to already overwhelmed hospitals and add a new challenge to the U.S. pandemic response.
TeleTracking sent TPM a nice email touting its qualifications and highlighting its
30 years of experience managing and tracking "hundreds of thousands" of hospital beds and managing "the movement of million patients across the care continuum."
"TeleTracking has been focused on this and only this for three decades, has invested over $1 billion in research and development, and was the tech company that not only launched the concept of patient flow and taught hospitals how to manage bed and room capacity, and was also the first to recognize and pioneer the health system command center model where critical—once disparate—functions centralize in order to make better, faster decisions about patient access and care," spokesperson Amie Podolak wrote.
TeleTracking did not respond to specific questions about the company's capacity to handle the COVID-19 data, and did not make anyone available for an interview.
Not only is Yr Dok Zoom not a data guy, he's also not a medical doktor (so why am I even allowed to write about this stuff?). But I'm not quite sure if you held up that statement against a description of what the CDC does, you'd find a lot of overlap? I'm just a simple country rhetorician, so perhaps I'm missing a lot of reassuring information about TeleTracking's readiness to handle and make meaningful sense of tons of data about infectious disease.
But HHS sure seems excited about the new system, as you'd expect:
The administration has been touting the TeleTracking system as a more efficient alternative to the NHSN, which they claim has been too slow to report hospitals' data. CDC Director Robert Redfield used words like "rapid," "streamlined" and "flexible" to describe TeleTracking's system on a recent press call.
Sounds like everything's fine, then! Except maybe some quibbles about whether a smallish company that's never done anything like this can ramp up its operations in the middle of a crisis:
TeleTracking has about 1,000 hospitals in its client base. According to Dun and Bradstreet, it has 300 employees across all of its locations and generates $58.16 million in annual revenue.
"Such a company would generally be considered risky if not high risk" for the contract, said Peter Vinella, a former CIO of Capital Markets at Smith Barney who has overseen large data migration projects as a financial consultant. [...]
Vinella [also] said that such huge data tracking and repository systems usually take months, if not years, to set up, calling it an "impossible" feat for hospitals to adjust to the change so quickly.
"At best, data will be lost or corrupted and hospitals will be unnecessarily burdened in the short run," he said.
Time, as they say, will tell. We took a very brief look at HHS's new dashboard, and, perhaps knowing that someone was writing about it, the thing immediately threw up an error message, although it loaded fine when we refreshed our browser:
It's really a very cheap screenshot of us to even mention that. Other functions loaded just fine, like this very reassuring map of ICU capacity, which isn't completely dark purple yet:
We are going to keep an eye on the actual experts as this little experiment in changing data horses midstream goes forward. If TeleTracking does an excellent job, then we'll surely let you know, and offer the company a cookie. If they haven't turned off their cookies to prevent tracking by advertisers.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.