Rising to the Historic Challenges of COVID-19

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

The COVID-19 crisis has emerged as a lethal threat to Americans in all age groups, among all races and ethnicities, in communities urban and rural. It is one of the deadliest outbreaks in more than a century, testing our current public health and healthcare delivery infrastructure like no other.

But whether recalling historic episodes such as the influenza pandemic of 1918 or the polio outbreaks in the 1940s, it’s important to remember that we, as a Nation, have confronted and overcome steep public health challenges in our past.

We are doing so again with COVID-19. And AHRQ is playing a key role in the battle to defeat the threat by not only ramping up its data analytics capabilities to forecast medical needs, but also by launching new research efforts aimed at empowering health system leaders, providers, policymakers, and others as they treat patients and allocate critical resources.

Before going further, let me echo the sentiments of others by emphasizing that we at AHRQ are deeply indebted to the tireless efforts of the physicians, nurses, first responders, and other professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Their ongoing heroism in communities across the United States has been an inspirational reminder of the country’s resilience and its deep capacity for coming together in times of crisis.

As that work continues, we are learning quickly—not only about our early successes in combating the disease, but also about the gaps that must be filled to address the uncertainties faced by today’s healthcare professionals, policymakers, and patients.

To help address these challenges, we have redirected the Agency’s day-to-day work to intensify application of our core capabilities, and have taken steps to invest in initiatives to prepare for other challenges that may come our way. Under the direction of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, we are targeting our efforts in ways that contribute to the current whole-of-department approach to addressing this crisis.

At the front end of AHRQ’s response has been its robust data and analytics enterprise. Through the use of AHRQ’s premier datasets—the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS)—the Agency has collected, analyzed, and passed forward data to assist Federal and State entities to develop crucial models to inform policymaking decisions. Specifically, our data analyses have provided needed insights into the Nation’s hospital bed capacities—for both inpatient care and intensive care – as well as urgent questions regarding ventilator availabilities.

In addition, AHRQ has established a strike team of internal experts—researchers, medical professionals, and data scientists—to address the major short- and long-term needs among policymakers and healthcare delivery systems related to risk mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. The team, in partnership with AHRQ’s National Advisory Council, quickly identified areas where AHRQ’s capabilities can help accelerate the emerging outbreak response:

  • Investing in rapid cycle, pragmatic research to answer real-time challenges such as integration of novel laboratory testing capabilities, modifications to infection control practices, or tailored patient education.
  • Evaluating the healthcare system’s response to COVID-19 and its expanded use of telehealth.
  • Expanding the work of existing organizations devoted to practice improvement to ensure clinicians have the latest available evidence and the tools and resources to incorporate it into patient care.
  • Developing a comprehensive data and analytics system to provide timely response to critical questions.
  • Establishing an online digital healthcare knowledge platform that brings evidence to the point of care.
  • Reengineering healthcare delivery through a systems engineering approach.
  • Ensuring patient and clinician safety.

As part of this strategy, AHRQ is creating new opportunities for extramural research, releasing two Notices of Intent to support COVID-19-related grant projects. One notice solicits existing grantees to compete for supplemental funds to temporarily refocus their work on COVID-19. The other notice foreshadows a new R01 funding opportunity for investigator-initiated research on the healthcare system’s response to the outbreak. Follow-up Funding Opportunity Announcements will be available in the coming weeks.

AHRQ is positioned to be—and indeed has historically been—the central hub for the data, research, and analysis that can help provide the answers that policymakers and public health professionals so desperately need. Public health professionals should not have to build a data infrastructure after a public health crisis occurs. We must establish a system that generates answers and solutions immediately and ensures that no matter what system is put in place, it must be informed by the difficult lessons learned from COVID-19.

It has been, and will be, a sense of common purpose that has powered our work. Each day, AHRQ is collaborating with agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services—as well as at the Federal Emergency Management Agency—to closely coordinate the Federal government’s integrated response efforts.

Together, as a Nation, we can and will take the steps needed to protect the health and well-being of the American people.

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