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Health Data and Covid-19: Charting a Path out of the pandemic

Data-driven insights for an effective pandemic response  

From the earliest days of the pandemic, data and analytics have played a critical role, allowing government agencies and their partners vital insights to guide efforts in the fight to contain COVID-19.  Despite limited and often scarce data and outdated and underfunded data systems, technology has made it possible to track, map, and predict COVID vulnerability, including infection rates, health outcomes, and vaccine uptake.  

I was honored to open the discussion of Health Databases and Covid-19: Adapting Data and Responding to Trends at the National Association of Health Data Organizations (NAHDO) annual conference last week. My colleagues and I at Maximus were delighted to sponsor the session and spotlight some of the incredibly valuable contributions data scientists and epidemiologists have made to the pandemic response. 

During the session, we heard three innovative case studies that showcased the impact that data has had in helping organizations understand how the COVID crisis impacted the health-related needs of the most vulnerable populations they serve – and how to best respond to these emerging needs. Some key findings included: 

Behavioral health needs: Assessing behavioral health data helped stakeholders across the public, and private sector understand how patterns in hospitalizations for behavioral health issues changed during the pandemic – and how those unmet needs primarily manifested (e.g., as mood and anxiety disorders or alcohol and opioid abuse). The data provide vital clues for promoting health equity and deepen the empirical understanding that mental health needs have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Moreover, the studies show that equitable access to mental health services leaves much room for improvement during the pandemic and beyond. 

Telehealth services: Data analytics provided crucial insights into who is primarily utilizing new telehealth services and technologies, the types of clinical services where telehealth adoption is most prevalent, and how these utilization trends changed as the pandemic ebbed and flowed. The studies provided invaluable insight into how we can best ensure our Nation’s most vulnerable individuals have continued access to vital medical services no matter the local COVID-19 situation.  

Cancer screening and chemotherapy: Hospital utilization data clearly indicate that not all hospitals have been equally impacted by the pandemic – and clinical services for some types of cancer remain hit much harder than others. Additionally, the analysis identified key factors that positioned some hospitals for a much more rapid return to pre-pandemic levels of care, while others are still falling behind. In addition to hospital-internal factors, this included external factors such as the characteristics and vulnerability of the populations served -- invaluable insights that can help better prepare for and respond to future public health crises. 

Ironing out shortfalls to improve the impact of data analytics 

We also heard about some of the shared growing pains and ongoing efforts to improve the data collection and evaluation: 

  • Developing consistent definitions for essential, albeit imprecisely defined concepts, including "behavioral health comorbidities," "telehealth services," or "cancer-related services," to enable consistent analyses and meaningful conversation.  
  • Anticipating and counteracting negative ramifications of changes in coding (e.g., moving from ICD-9 to ICD-10 codes or the introduction of new data elements) on data quality, granularity, and availability. 
  • Making sure to ask the right questions of the data; for instance, differences in the ability of hospitals to return to pre-pandemic service levels were not just a function of how long the pandemic surge disrupted a hospital's operations; factors like the vulnerability of the population served and the lead time to prepare for and message around the surge had a significant impact. 

Making data readily available, accessible, and useful 

Several speakers and participants emphasized the importance of making data accessible through dashboards. In addition, they highlighted the utility of tools like geospatial analysis as fundamental ways to improve the usefulness of the data. Such analyses can improve the granularity of predictions and set government agencies and their partners up to better predict and address complex issues like health equity. 

Lessons learned and recommendations: data analytics remains indispensable to American public health

Collectively, the experiences of the presenters and participants of the NAHDO conference mirror what Maximus has observed over the past 18+ months. 

Since early 2020, Maximus has supported federal, state, and local government partners in their responses to the COVID pandemic. At the national level, we operate the National COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline for CDC as well as CDC-INFO. Additionally, we support more than 23 states and localities in their COVID responses, including conducting contact tracing, combatting vaccine hesitancy, performing data analytics, and implementing care coordination.  

Over the course of our work, data has proven foundational in our ability to help our clients respond efficiently to the pandemic. For example, data analytics has helped Maximus identify COVID hot-spots and priority areas for vaccination, which has helped us better advise localities on which populations remain at risk of being left behind. In addition, data has allowed us to map and measure the pandemic's impacts on the communities we serve and the corresponding unmet needs. As a result, our assessments have helped us understand which interventions most significantly drive program effectiveness. 

The Maximus Center for Health Innovation is helping federal, state, and local governments to serve the public and end the pandemic.

Maximus Health Data Analytics provides federal, state, and local government clients with the data systems, analytical tools, and technical expertise needed to promote population health. We develop integrated solutions to ensure public health professionals have the data, analytics, and expertise at their fingertips to ensure program success. We bring technical experience in public health surveillance system modernization; advanced data analytics and emerging technologies; and an industry-leading robotic automation, Agile, and DevSecOps practice, led by public health experts with deep programmatic insights and decades of experience implementing population health programs.