Considering the nearly three-year COVID-19 pandemic that has had a chokehold on the United States and exposed vulnerabilities in the nation’s ability to operate digitally, one government watchdog is urging Federal officials to overcome their challenges in how they manage public health data.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on Sept. 22 addressing public health entities’ lack of ability to share new data and potentially life-saving information in real-time.

“Longstanding challenges in the Federal government’s management of public health data undermine the nation’s ability to quickly respond to public health emergencies like COVID-19 and monkeypox,” the report said.

GAO listed three major challenges facing the government today:

  • Common standards for collecting data;
  • Interoperability; and
  • Public health IT infrastructure.

The report cited that over 15 years ago, Federal law mandated the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a national public health situational awareness network with a standardized data format.

“This network was intended to provide secure, near real-time information to facilitate early detection of and rapid response to infectious diseases,” the report continued, “However, the Federal government still lacks this needed network.”

The first challenge GAO presented was followed by two recommendations. Public health entities, the watchdog argued, need a standardized data format to ensure information is consistently reported. They are asking HHS to establish an expert committee for data collection and reporting standards, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to define specific action steps and time frames for its efforts.

To address inoperability among public health IT systems – the ability of databases to process and exchange information from separate networks – they recommend HHS ensure the plan includes how standards for inoperability will be used.

GAO offered three recommendations for the final challenge within the Federal government. First, HHS must prioritize the development of the network they were asked to establish 15 years ago. They also recommend that the agency identifies an office to oversee this development. And lastly, they urge HHS to identify information-sharing challenges and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having near real-time access to these data could significantly improve our nation’s preparedness for public health emergencies and potentially save lives,” the report said. “Without the network, Federal, state, and local health departments, hospitals, and laboratories are left without the ability to easily share health information in real-time to respond effectively to diseases.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.