4 Ways Location Data Can Help Public Health Experts Fight COVID-19

By Daniel Cidon, CTO, NextGate &
Vicki Kwiatkowski, Head of Global Channel Strategy, Loqate, a GBG solution
Twitter: @NextGate
Twitter: @loqate
Twitter: @dcidon

The effects of COVID-19 have rapidly spread across the globe – testing the limits of both the population and the public health sector. High in-demand medical services are countered by disruptions in daily operations as hospitals struggle to function in the face of overcapacity, understaffing, and information deficits. However, efforts to curb the outbreak have been in effect as public health experts look to location data as a means of alleviating the pressure on our already overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Utilizing location data to detect, respond to, and prevent disease outbreaks is not a new concept. In the past, data was used to face health threats head-on, including using geographic information systems (GIS) to map the risk of radiation exposure in Fukushima after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and the tracking of infected persons during the 2014-2016 outbreak of Ebola.

Recently, Google and Facebook announced their location-based data efforts to help researchers map and track COVID-19 cases. With an increased need for clear and actionable insights into the spread of the disease, location data can be a powerful tool in pinpointing hot spots, measuring the effectiveness of shelter-in-place orders, and allocating resources.

Here are four ways that location and address data can help combat COVID-19:

Contact Tracing and Stay-at-Home Orders
Upon worsening news of the pandemic, public health officials took quick action to defend the public, introduced stay-at-home orders and calls for social distancing, and school closures. While these measures have been effective in turning the tides locally, a global solution remains far without accurately tracking the outbreaks and spread of the virus. Designed to curb the spread of infectious diseases by detecting cases and telling users if they’ve come into contact with an infected person, contact tracing is key to allowing people to once again gather in public.

The process of contact tracing can be broken into three steps:

  1. Contact Identification – Once an infected person is confirmed, other contacts are identified by inquiring about the person’s activities, travel, and who they’ve come in contact with.
  2. Contact Listing- Efforts are made to list and identify every contact to inform them of their status, what it means, the actions that will follow.
  3. Contact Follow-up – Health officials conduct follow-up with all contacts to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.

For all steps, accurate patient data is a necessity. Any error or inconsistencies during this process can result in misinformation and the spread of the virus to future victims.

Contact tracking is a laborious process that requires efficiency and time. Patient and demographic data is solely reliant on the positioning, capabilities of the public health workers, many of which are already overworked, and more prone to instances of error during data capture.

Processes for accurate, real-time address capture and database cleansing are needed to supplement traditional contact tracing. With verified location data, health experts can improve the detection of infected persons and ensure that residents at risk are found, diagnosed, and treated.

Address verification software and location data can also be helpful in powering some of the tech-savvy applications that are in development across the world. Some countries have explored the notion of capturing location data via mobile through Bluetooth signal or wireless apps run by public health officials. While these methods yield much promise, experts will first need to overcome the issues they’ll face with privacy and connectivity issues.

Heat Maps
To communicate a complete picture of disease spread, visuals are often more effective than words.

Heat maps have long been considered the best option for visually demonstrating the spread of infectious disease, increasing vaccination rates, and promoting disease awareness. However, these images must be supplied with high-quality data.

The goal is to detect potential hotspots by using location data and relying on people around the world to report their symptoms. But, data collected from patients and health workers run the risk of being inaccurate due to entry errors, miscommunications, false reporting, etc. The first step to fully utilizing this myriad of data is to ensure that any information collected is verified.

Using real-time location intelligence and machine learning, public health officials can predict patterns and trace hotspots of potential new outbreaks. Without ensuring the accuracy of this location data, systems are subject to duplicate patient data and erroneous data that taints any insights that public officials might have to gain.

To help solve the fundamental challenge of address data management in healthcare, NextGate partnered with Loqate to create an enhanced address verification and geocode solution within its Enterprise Master Patient Index (EMPI) technology platform. Their software works to connect the healthcare ecosystem by accurately identifying and linking patient and provider data. Loqate’s front end real-time address verification and backend batch database cleansing allows analysts to build a view of the world through data orchestration. Heat maps loaded with accurate information can condense pages of analytic data into a single view that informs disaster response, resulting in better predictions for the future.

Coupled with increased interoperability and coordinated information sharing, location data has the power to help health officials establish guidance to protect public health and the essential needs of communities. As long as analysts have high-quality data, they will be able to track analyze and ultimately suppress COVID-19.

Patient Matching
Public health greatly depends on patient and demographic data to facilitate accurate reporting and coordinate quick and easy sharing of crucial data across systems. Recently health surveillance methods have moved online to virtual systems like electronic laboratory reporting (ELR), electronic health records (EHR). Ideally, these systems lead to more rapid patient matching, easier contact tracing, and more. But, with CVOID-19 triggering new waves of patient data sources daily, these diverging technologies elicit declining data quality, gaps in care coordination, and costly medical errors.

Health providers and epidemiologists need a 360-view of patient data to track the spread of the disease and determine new containment strategies. However, the high magnitude of cases means overtaxed nurses often decide between quickly collecting key health metrics of a patient or maintaining high levels of data integrity.

On a recent ONC Health Information Technology Advisory Committee (HITAC) call, Janet Hamilton of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) stated that, “around 40% of the patient demographic information is missing as compared to about 10% for other laboratory tests for other reportable diseases.” Inaccurate or outdated patient demographics, such as address and phone information, create operational and financial drawbacks. Health providers are missing the data necessary to determine who and where lab results are from and are wasting crucial time detecting and contacting patients for follow-up.

To carefully track patients and bolster patient data accuracy, interoperability between EHRs and improved quality of patient data at all touchpoints is needed. An efficient Enterprise Master Patient Index (EMPI) platform powered by location data can significantly assist in patient matching and reduce duplicate records by validating information such as diagnosis, past medications, medical tests, and the names of primary care doctors and specialists.

By integrating address verification technology, an EMPI platform can make use of reference data to further fill in demographic gaps. Verifying information such as the spelling of names or current and former addresses enables the construction of a single golden record of patient data that will enhance analytics and help link patient records from various providers, no matter where they seek aid.

Prescription Refills
As health providers work around the clock to ensure the safety of patients affected by COVID-19, citizens at home are worried about having access to another crucial requirement: prescription medication.

In the last few months, pharmacies have been seeing a significant surge in calls requesting to extend 30-day prescriptions or waive early medication refill limits. The uneasiness has only grown as patients across the globe have been subjected to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that limit direct access to these resources.

Thankfully, insurers and pharmacies are making it easier for patients to have undeterred access to necessary medications. by employing one or all of the following strategies:

  • Encouraging mail-order supplies of 90 days’ worth of medications
  • Waive charges for home delivery of prescription medications.
  • Offer 90-day maintenance medication prescriptions
  • Waive early refill limits on 30-day prescription maintenance medications.

As medications are requested and prescribed via virtual consultations, the quality of patient care relies heavily on the quality of the data available in their systems. Without accurate patient demographic data, the likelihood of errors in delivery increases in a time where failed deliveries can be life-threatening. Ill-equipped systems will find it difficult to mitigate cases of failed deliveries, wrong refills or incorrect dosages. Address verification (AV) technology can help solve the fundamental delivery challenges that come from poor patient data management and low-quality address data.

With real-time address verification, you capture only accurate address data as patient information is entered into the database. AV can also correct erroneous patient data before it spreads through an organization’s network. This verified address data ensures that pharmacies deliver vital medications to the right patient’s door every time.

This article was originally published on the NextGate Blog and is republished here with permission.