Gottlieb: Feds need to use data to anticipate future pandemics

The experience in responding to the COVID pandemic shows the need for using information to predict disease surges, former FDA head says.

The nation’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic are ongoing, but the U.S. needs a new national approach to gather data, and use it to anticipate future infection challenges and muster a response.

That’s the view of Scott Gottlieb, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who sees a growing need for an agency to have the capacity to foresee potential health challenges and manage national planning.

Currently, federal agencies are focused on retrospective analysis, using data gathered from public reporting to use past views of health challenges to respond to today’s challenges – more needs to be done to empower the federal response to anticipate problems, Gottlieb said during a question-and-answer session Wednesday during a Hospital Operations Virtual Summit sponsored by LeanTaaS.

Scott Gottlieb, MD

“We need an agency with that capability,” he said. “I think it should be the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but instead of it being a retrospective organization, it should look a little more like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency),” which in part is tasked with anticipating potential disasters and gathering recovery resources.

Data will play a play a key role in managing future waves of the pandemic, such as the one expected from the Omicron variant. Data from other countries suggests that the variant is spreading in populations that don’t have sufficient immunity because of lagging vaccination rates, Gottlieb said.

 Data could also help anticipate seasonal and geographical swings in COVID transmission expected next year and beyond. “We will need to reaffirm boosters and will need to be flexible with public health measures,” he said. “We’re going to have to behave differently as a society.” Public health response to the COVID pandemic has helped reduce flu transmissions, he added.

In addition to laying the groundwork for predictive analytics, the nation’s response to the pandemic also has accelerated the adoption of digital health technologies, Gottlieb noted.

“On the delivery side, there’s a lot of opportunity from the widespread adoption of eHealth tools and the ability to use data at the point of care. We are in the early innings of adopting technical tools in healthcare,” he said.

Much depends on the regulatory framework that oversees the use of these tools and the agencies that set the regulations that allow new tools to be used.

“On the regulatory side, we’re starting to see regulators that are more willing to make adoption of these tools, and make the clearances for them more seamless,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve seen acceleration of this as a result of the pandemic. We’ve also seen a cultural change in terms of legislators deciding what should be made available, like home diagnostic tools that allow a patient to diagnose serious infectious diseases at home.”

Rapid acceptance of telehealth services show continued consumer appetite for the appropriate use of technology in healthcare. “This has been a culture change – the ability of providers and patients to transfer care to that platform. We want to be able to prove through data that you can have a comparable experience (on virtual platforms).” Information technology can also help provider organizations better match supplies and capacity to fluctuations in demand for healthcare services, Gottlieb said. “There is a real opportunity to use access to data and much better access to large data sets and predictive algorithms.” This is a logical use for artificial intelligence that doesn’t carry the concern about using AI in clinical settings. “This is not a regulated space, using algorithms to inform business decisions, so we can see more rapid adoption.”

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