From Testing to Immunization, Accurate and Consistent Patient Identification is Critical for Managing COVID-19

The following is a guest article by Andy Aroditis, CEO, NextGate.

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to accelerate across the United States, with record-breaking infection rates and a tragically high death count. Several states have recently recorded more than 1 million infections, and areas that were largely spared in the first wave are now coming to grips with being in the middle of a second, increasingly severe spike.

Amidst this dire situation, public health officials and healthcare organizations are doing their very best to understand patterns of spread, allocate resources appropriately, and develop new best practices to treat patients in a coordinated manner.

At the heart of these efforts? Detailed, timely, and highly reliable information about every individual affected by the virus.

Slowing the spread requires healthcare stakeholders to have complete confidence in the identity and health information of every individual when conducting testing and contract tracing or administering treatment.

And when one or more vaccines become available, providers and public health agencies will need trustworthy mechanisms to keep track of who has received which vaccine – and when and where they received it.

Unfortunately, a number of shortcomings in how patient information is collected, managed and shared has weakened our nation’s response to the pandemic. To efficiently carry out such efforts as testing, contact tracing, treatment, and immunizations, individuals must be accurately identified and matched to their health records.

COVID-19 testing

Many states have successfully ramped up their testing capacity to conduct tens of thousands of tests each day. However, while patients are increasingly able to get a test when they want one, the results are not always ending up where they are needed most.

Contributing to this issue is that basic demographic elements needed to track and manage patients effectively are not being captured. Lack of important demographics such as addresses and phone numbers add significant administrative burdens and perpetuates delays.

According to the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), approximately 80 percent of COVID-19 test results are missing demographic information and half of results do not include patient addresses.

That means patients may not be receiving their test results in a timely manner, if at all, limiting their ability to self-isolate before potentially spreading the virus to people nearby.

Contract tracing and outbreak monitoring efforts

Following up testing with contact tracing can help potentially exposed individuals make better choices about interacting with others. But the problems of delivering test results are dramatically compounded when attempting to assemble an entire network of contacts based on incomplete or unavailable information.

Today, demographic data elements across EHRs and other health IT systems are not standardized. Therefore, contact tracers spend precious hours manually searching for demographic and contact data to alert individuals about potential exposure.

Insufficient demographic data also limits healthcare stakeholders’ abilities to identify trends in the community and react accordingly. That includes such demographic data as race and ethnicity, which is missing for almost half of reported COVID-19 cases nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The result is an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s impact on people of color, who have been hit particularly hard by the virus.

Treatment for symptomatic patients

It goes without saying that an accurate medical history is important for providing excellent care to patients. During COVID-19, comprehensive information about underlying health conditions is even more critical.

With hospitals overwhelmed, family members restricted from the premises, and patients often unable to recount their entire histories by themselves, providers must be able to trust that the information in front of them is complete and current.

Accurate and consistent patient identification ensures that providers are looking at the right record associated with the right patient – and that the information represents the most accurate portrait of the person’s medical history and activities from across the health system.

Not only does this give providers the confidence to provide COVID-19 treatment in the ED or inpatient setting, but it also equips primary care providers with the ability to follow up so their patients can recover fully at home. 

Widespread immunization

The world is eagerly awaiting a vaccine that can provide protection against the deadly virus.  Multiple groups are working on immunizations, and it is likely that there will be more than one option for patients in the near future.

These products might have different vaccination schedules, offer different degrees of protection, and may only be appropriate for certain groups of people. Tracking all of these factors will be challenging, especially as over-vaccination or missed doses may come with clinical consequences.

Just like with testing and contract tracing, having a clear and up-to-date record of each individual’s activities and results will be crucial for implementing a widespread vaccination program.

Tools for advancing patient matching and identification

The ability to exchange and synchronize demographics across multiple systems and sites of care is a key element in dealing with the pandemic. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 generating new waves of patient data sources daily, EHRs lack the sophisticated algorithms to compare and link records from multiple sources in real time.

Automated patient identification technology, external from the EHR, can play a critical role in facilitating efforts to track and trace the spread of the virus. Tired of EHR systems that only provide a limited view of one’s health history, many progressive healthcare organizations are turning to Enterprise Master Person Indexes (EMPIs) to aggregate, link, dedupe and standardize data more quickly and efficiently. When paired with claims data feeds, health information exchange (HIE) results, and interoperability connections with other healthcare partners, EMPIs can bring a patient’s complete healthcare status into focus.

The challenges posed by COVID-19 – for patients, healthcare organizations, laboratories, and public health agencies – underscore the importance of ensuring identities are uniquely tied to those who are being treated for the virus.

As a second wave descends, accurate and consistent patient identification will only grow in importance. Since much is still unknown about the long-term clinical effects of COVID-19, it will be equally important to ensure patients remain connected to appropriate primary care or other healthcare resources for the long haul.

Starting now with automated, enterprise-grade patient identification technology, healthcare stakeholders can begin to combat the current threats of testing, tracing, and treatment while preparing for a better future where COVID-19 is under control.

Andy Aroditis, is CEO of NextGate, the global leader in healthcare enterprise identification.