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Biosecurity System Improves Public Health Surveillance, Decision Making
The sapphire at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is a different kind of gem.
A surveillance system called Situational Awareness and Preparedness for Public Health Incidences Using Reasoning Engines (or SAPPHIRE) is designed to detect outbreaks of disease and acts of bioterrorism faster than conventional monitoring methods.
“We are developing the next-generation technology for biosurveillance and public health preparedness,” said Parsa Mirhaji, M.D., director of the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Informatics Research at The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston.
“Next-generation public health information systems will no longer be isolated and specialized – rather, they will be part of a larger, complex and dynamically changing collaborative environment,” he said.
The system incorporates Semantic Web technology from Oracle™ to facilitate automated data gathering from multiple sources and to enable SAPPHIRE to pick up outbreaks and other public health trends days, and possibly weeks, before other surveillance methods, Mirhaji said. This is done by putting various data into a format that can be understood and analyzed by computers.
For example, with its ability to connect the dots, SAPPHIRE can spot the early signs of an influenza outbreak by reviewing health and epidemiological data from caregivers, hospitals, pharmacies, clinical laboratories and departments of health.
Tested during the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts of 2005, SAPPHIRE’s surveillance techniques analyzed the health of evacuees at the Astrodome, Reliant Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center. A PDA extension of SAPPHIRE enabled more than 300 volunteers, led by the UT School of Public Health, to collect and analyze critical health data.
The information gleaned from the nearly 9,000 confidential patient encounters helped caregivers respond to the specific needs of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
“Semantic Web technology allows UT Houston to shift the center of gravity for public health care delivery by moving beyond symptom detection to large-scale integrative public health surveillance,” Mirhaji said. “We can transform disparate data to contextualized information that decision makers can easily access, compute and act on.”
SAPPHIRE evolved from a 2003 study funded through the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, a subordinate element of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, and the UT Health Science Center to distinguish between manmade and environmental illnesses. The system was subsequently expanded to include data from the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Among other things, the system can detect syndromes with highest relevance to bioterrorism and avian flu preparedness.
“The principles that UT Houston employed during the Katrina disaster could serve as a model for the nationwide efforts involving public health information management,” said Oracle Vice President of Health Industries Mychelle Mowry. “The integration between Oracle and Semantic Web technologies enables simpler navigation of disparate health data, better public health information exchange and improved bio-surveillance efforts – ultimately helping to deliver better public health care.”
By Rob Cahill, Institutional Advancement
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