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Recent swine flu concerns underscore the need for better disease surveillance

May 11, 2009 – Research from the University of Utah Division of Public Health is improving the public health system’s ability to detect and respond to potential influenza and other infectious disease outbreaks through the use of electronic medical records (EMR).

The critical need for real-time disease surveillance systems has been underscored by recent concern about the Swine Flu. Although the flu has not spread as virulently as initially feared, the need for surveillance remains a top priority, according to Stephen C. Alder, Ph.D., chief of the public health division and associate professor of family and preventive medicine in the U School of Medicine.

U of U public health researchers and clinicians, in partnership with the Utah Department of Health and local health departments, are using EMRs from patient visits to University of Utah Health Care’s Community Health Centers to develop new methods for prospectively tracking real-time flu activity. Data from the EMRs enable the U researchers and health-care providers to discern patterns of flu-like illnesses from the past several years and monitor current flu conditions.

“The EMR data is shared with public health databases to help track flu activity and detect the probable onset of influenza epidemics,” Alder said. “The information also provides feedback to help our providers care for patients.”

The project is part of the dissertation of public health doctoral student Lisa Green, M.S.P.H., and includes members of the U public health division faculty and the University of Utah Health Care’s Community Health Center practitioners.

The surveillance is a legacy of the system that tracked illness among athletes during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, according to Alder.