Summary:

Using big data for public health is a common example of technology’s promise, but at the Centers for Disease Control, most data takes a long time to arrive and public health workers don’t have everything they need.

Rutberg-CDC

The Centers for Disease Control may not have access to real-time data like marketers do, but they are taking advantage of some surprising data sources to help protect the public health. For example, your shopping club card could help the organization figure out what particular food has caused a salmonella outbreak.

Jennifer McQuiston and Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, both officers at the CDC, explained that when someone gets sick and it’s part of a suspected outbreak, they try to get permission to access that person’s shopper card data. Speaking at the Rutberg Global summit in Atlanta Wednesday, McQuiston was very specific that they don’t commandeer the data without permission, but when they do have that permission they can use it to both help the patient specify the actual foods they ate and then match it to the same food that other ill people ate in an effort to pinpoint a culprit.

But overall, the CDC isn’t using as much data as one might think — or even hope. McQuiston said that in cases of diseases that the CDC cares about, it can take months between a patient coming in to their doctor and getting their diagnoses and the CDC getting the information about the disease showing up in that area. One reason is that such information comes to the CDC from the state public health agencies, but another is because reporting is still a paper process.

When I asked if something like an app where a doctor could report his or her diagnoses to both the state and the federal government might solve that issues, McQuiston was optimistic. She said as an organization the CDC is trying to reach out to more data savvy individuals and Silicon Valley to help the CDC in its effort to protect public health.

As part of that mission, a big concern for the agency is antibiotic resistance. Srinivasan brought it up first onstage as the threat that scares his most — a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is popping up in hospitals in the U.S. and has a 50 percent mortality rate — and again when I ask him what kind of data he’d most like to have access to.

It wasn’t real-time population health monitoring type data or anything from smartphones — he wanted a real time data on what antibiotics hospitals were prescribing inside their walls so he can track how and where specific antibiotics are being used. I walked away from the presentation and later in conversation with the two of them utterly freaked out about drug-resistant bacteria and was stunned by how much opportunity there is to bring the current levels of data tracking and analytics available to us to such an important area of public health.

I asked if the CDC was holding hackathons or doing any outreach to bring some of that experimentation from the tech world to the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters and both Srinivasan and McQinton said they hoped to.

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