State health workers granted online access to patient info during meningitis outbreak

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State health department workers in Tennessee recently asked hospitals there to grant them access to online patient records after the start of a deadly fungal meningitis outbreak in Nashville caused the collection of paper records to become too onerous a task. Many facilities obliged by creating an electronic tunnel, enabling state workers to monitor the treatments and conditions of patients without physically visiting each site, the Associated Press reported.

"Once we were deep into the outbreak, that was a lifesaver in terms of dealing with the complexity of the information that we were trying to handle," state epidemiologist Tim Jones told the AP. "Because this was so urgent and because there was so much communication going back and forth, there was no way that we could send staff out every day to all these hospitals, going back and forth with piles of records."

The outbreak, according to the AP, has been linked to epidural steroid injections that were created by a pharmacy in Massachusetts. The injection killed 45 people, and has sickened 700 more nationwide. The state's health department was following the cases in Tennessee, where 147 people have gotten sick and there have been 14 deaths.

In the wake of the outbreak, state health department officials are considering pushing a legislative agenda that would enable similar arrangements with hospitals to electronically share patient records in the event of a public health emergency.

In December 2012, a report from Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that states are woefully unprepared for public health emergencies such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks and bioterrorism attacks, largely due to federal budget cuts. That came even after the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services attempted to boost prevention of disease outbreaks with a $750 million investment in February 2011.

To learn more:
- read the AP report

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