Data Management Challenges at Public Health Agencies

Published: September 29, 2022

Federal Market AnalysisBig DataGovernment PerformanceHHSHealth ITInformation Technology

The GAO implores HHS to overcome several data management challenges and create a long awaited national public health situational awareness network.

Public health emergencies require sound data management practices and unified systems. Nonetheless, U.S. public health entities lack these, according to the GAO, jeopardizing the delivery of critical and life-saving information.

In a recent report, the GAO stated that public health agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, face specific challenges that significantly impact national response in public health emergencies. Specifically, the health entities face three high-level data challenges.

Resolving these data management challenges across public health agencies could provide a range of benefits in healthcare such as bolstering medical decision-making efforts; informing predictive health measures; assisting in future medical breakthroughs; and streamlining healthcare administration.

Effects of the above challenges were particularly on display at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long before the pandemic, however, work towards a unified public health network was underway, according to the GAO. Federal laws in 2006 required HHS to establish a real-time electronic public health situational awareness network to improve situational awareness for public health emergencies. Such a network would have to overcome key data management challenges. The network would be designed to seamlessly link the following health entities:

However, the GAO stated that the HHS has not prioritized the formation of such a network and continues to grapple with each data management challenge. Given this, the federal watchdog agency provides several recommendations to improve movement under each challenge:

Common Data Standards

  1. HHS create a data collections and reporting standards committee to oversee and inform ongoing data standardization among health entities.
  2. CDC define action steps and milestone time frames for its Data Modernization Initiative (DMI) which includes efforts to strengthen data sharing, data and analytics and data surveillance at the agency.

Interoperability among Public Health IT Systems

  1. HHS include use for interoperability standards in its planning for the public heath situational awareness network

Lack of a Public Health IT Infrastructure

  1. HHS establish action steps, milestones and metrics to track development progress on the public health situational awareness network
  2. HHS assign an office to oversee the above work
  3. HHS document information challenges and lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

For contractors, the data management challenges and GAO’s recommendations mean the potential for opportunities at HHS. For example, associated software, hardware, and policy planning will be key to improving public health IT infrastructure and creating a unified network. Creation of data mesh and lakes will aid in data accessibility, and visualization tools to support data sets and metrics are needed to address some of the GAO’s recommendations. Investment in continued data analysis on large volumes of data to study lessons learned and impact will also be required. Lastly, HHS will need a data -literate workforce to understand, support, and implement improved data management practices across the agency, requiring increased training and skills development programs.