AHRQ’s Signature Data Resources Poised to Inform the Battle against COVID-19

By Gopal Khanna, MBA, Director of AHRQ
Twitter: @AHRQNews

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of quality data and analytics. Every day, policymakers and public health experts across the United States are testing new methods for data collection and analysis, uncovering critical gaps in our understanding of healthcare delivery and generating real-time solutions to these problems. In recent blog posts, I highlighted how AHRQ is redirecting its work to confront the challenges of COVID-19, including some of our Nation’s most pressing data and analytics challenges, and to provide answers we desperately need, both now and in the future.

In particular, my colleagues and I are acutely aware of additional contributions that could be made with the wider availability of comprehensive and timely data on the functioning and capacity of the Nation’s healthcare delivery systems. Our country needs not only to track the Nation’s ongoing response, but also to measure our progress and reliably predict what resources will be needed to effectively prevail over this evolving health emergency.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex M. Azar has prioritized the use of data to guide decisions on the Nation’s pandemic response, an approach in alignment with Congressional passage of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. AHRQ supports the emerging consensus that the Nation requires a data infrastructure that delivers uniform, real-time information to address the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health and care delivery needs. Our data systems must be modern and nimble, equipped to provide Federal and State public health decision-makers with real-time information to guide response plans.

AHRQ recognizes two data streams that are critical for future response planning. The first encompasses data collected via State and national surveillance efforts, an area that continues to be managed impressively by our colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A second complementary data stream is the collection and analysis of data pertaining to the Nation’s healthcare delivery systems, and that is the enterprise that AHRQ is poised to expand.

As a way to contribute to the coordinated national effort against COVID-19, AHRQ in recent weeks has drawn upon longstanding data partnerships in its Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP). This assistance — provided to the office of the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – included providing State, urban, and rural data on hospital occupancy rates, the availability of intensive care units beds, and current ventilator capacity.

Another sentinel AHRQ data resource, the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), has been a source of information to the HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and HHS leadership as they assess the risk of COVID-19 to various population subgroups, including essential workers and minorities. Moving forward, HCUP and MEPS represent unique and valuable data sources for modeling the dimensions and arc of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how its toll might best be minimized via effective public policy.

While we are dedicated to using today’s available data to inform our Nation’s COVID-19 response, we join others who have identified knowledge gaps that if filled would improve national, State and local response activities. The Nation cannot afford to address healthcare crises without key datasets that are essential building blocks for saving lives and easing the stresses that we now see in stark relief on our healthcare delivery systems.

With these needs in mind, my colleagues and I have begun to articulate a vision for a new AHRQ data resource – an “analytics and insights platform” – that will provide valuable new information to researchers and policymakers at every level of government.

We are currently focused on four main resource components: expanding MEPS to build a repository of “demand-side databases” to estimate healthcare delivery needs in public health emergencies; establishing a “supply-side database” to better understand health system capacity; augmenting existing AHRQ datasets with information on social determinants of health (SDoH); and creating and testing a new synthetic database to allow rapid-cycle research and analysis while minimizing risks of privacy concerns.

Enhancements to AHRQ’s existing resources have potential to fill important gaps in our Nation’s data infrastructure. For example, we need a comprehensive, standardized, national source of social determinants of health data at the local level to understand the relationship between social and economic factors of the patient and of the communities in which their healthcare is provided. While we are currently able to measure many facets of demand on the national healthcare system, we need additional data at the State and local level to create predictive models that forecast the impact of policy changes on the supply of healthcare.

Clearly, the Nation needs a data infrastructure to assist with preparedness, response, and recovery from disease outbreaks and natural disasters. That need, however, extends beyond emergency scenarios. Apart from times of crisis, we need a data infrastructure – a publicly available data platform – whose 360-degree view of the Nation’s healthcare system provides insights into all aspects of care delivery.

Central to this requirement is a baseline understanding of how the healthcare delivery system functions by providing longitudinal information on the delivery system’s capacities, resources, organization, and financial structure.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last public health emergency to confront us. In anticipation of such challenges, we at AHRQ are reminded of our mission: to improve the health, safety, and well-being of all Americans by supporting a healthcare system that is effective, safe, and high-value. Such a system must include a data infrastructure that adequately serves the Nation’s needs.

We look forward to fostering a public-private partnership to engage users, stakeholders, Federal, State, and local policymakers, and others about how we can best work together to meet these goals. The safety and well-being of all Americans depend on it, not only as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the future, as well.

This article was originally published on AHRQ Views Blog and is republished here with permission.