To meet the demands of an ever-changing global health crisis, public health agencies had to modernize, automate and scale faster than anyone could have imagined.

The lessons learned during these challenging times have led to permanent improvements in many operations, making public health more accessible and equitable. At a recent panel discussion, agency leaders from Ventura County, California, and Winnebago, Illinois, spoke about how they transformed their technology infrastructure and processes to handle COVID-19 and how they plan to replicate and scale these changes to impact service delivery beyond pandemic-related needs.

Their experiences demonstrate how important it is for public health agencies to automate manual processes, unify disparate systems, gain efficiencies and improve access to health services for underserved and vulnerable communities.

Automate manual processes

The first lesson from the pandemic is to automate processes. Disease tracking has been a critical component of efforts to understand, predict and better control outbreaks, but public health officials in many communities, including Ventura County, California, quickly found their existing resources ill-equipped to handle the volume and urgency of COVID-19 cases among their residents

“We were woefully unprepared from both a technology and a people standpoint to respond to the pandemic,” said Ventura County Epidemiologist Erin Slack.

Manual processes were no longer an option when her staff of five in the communicable diseases department ballooned to an all-time high of 200 as county employees, many from outside public health, were reassigned to help. The county chose to replace outdated surveillance system and automate operations to address COVID-19. Slack’s team also utilized automation for case investigation and compliance reporting.

Automation technology used by public health systems needs to be easy to use and easily adaptable to meet rapidly evolving needs. That way, it’s not only useful during a disease outbreak, but can be used to address new challenges as they emerge, from natural disasters to rising mental health concerns.

Unify disparate systems

Rather than storing data in disparate systems, having one point of access for data and analytics in real time helps managers and decision makers readjust their processes faster and more effectively.

Ventura County is expanding the use of technology to new areas of public health, like their community health program. Having all their data in one place makes it possible to form new connections and unlock insights.

“We used to get referrals over the phone or via fax,” Slack said. “Now our referral form is a survey.”

Once a survey response comes in, it is routed to support staff, and if more information is needed, the referral nurse is prompted to reach out to the patient or the referring agency directly to get more details. Meanwhile, the county can access robust data on emerging trends in conditions and treatments.

Gain efficiencies

Another impact of the pandemic was the immediate need for better technology to help with scheduling vaccines and treatment, testing for the virus and integrating data among clinical systems. With scheduling in particular, many legacy tools lack the agility to update screening questions and eligibility criteria as understanding of COVID evolves — without involving IT teams. Agencies need systems that are more flexible and easier to use for both employees and residents.

It’s also critical for tech to be scalable to accommodate new users, such as the National Guard troops who were deployed to help manage operations in Winnebago County, Illinois.

Winnebago County wanted to build trust and credibility among residents, so they sent residents a digital survey about their patient experience within 72 hours after vaccination. Those responses were then communicated back to the public.

“There was a lot of mistrust in the beginning,” said Dr. Sandra Martell, Winnebago’s Public Health Administrator. “These responses became a validation of the lived experience of the community, which was a really powerful transparency tool we hope to leverage more going forward.”

Improve access to health services for underserved and vulnerable communities

Finally, the pandemic shone new light on the disparities that continue to exist in certain communities. In some counties, agencies discovered that there were residents who didn’t have email addresses or telephone numbers. A need emerged for self-service functionality so that patients could screen themselves and schedule appointments. This in turn freed up bandwidth for agents to help those who lacked digital access.

A central goal for any public health program needs to be reaching the underserved and vulnerable, and technology can help.

These examples demonstrate how agencies used pandemic experiences to build a foundation for continuous improvement. The transformative processes implemented because of COVID can be a springboard for improving trust, transparency and efficiency on multiple levels, allowing employees and healthcare providers to focus on serving people.

William Hudson is the principal advisor for public health at Qualtrics.

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