Progress slow in creating public health situational awareness network

As Irma nears, access to real-time information about emerging threats needed to make decisions.

The Department of Health and Human Services has made little progress in establishing a nationwide electronic public health situational awareness network, which is hampering the country’s access to real-time information about emerging threats such as disease outbreaks and weather-related emergencies, such as Hurricane Irma.

That’s the finding of a new audit by the Government Accountability Office, which evaluated HHS’s efforts to implement a U.S. public health situational awareness network.

While the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA) required HHS to develop an implementation plan for such a capability, including specific activities for incorporating data into the network, GAO found that despite the agency identifying several actions related to enhancing existing information-sharing they did not address vital activities such as defining data elements and standards.

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“Until the department addresses all required activities, it will lack an effective tool for ensuring that public health situational awareness network capabilities have been established in accordance with all of the requirements defined by the law,” find the auditors. “In addition, HHS did not identify measurable steps for completing and tracking the status of the activities required by the law. PAHPRA required HHS to include in its plan the measurable steps to be taken to establish the network.”

Without defining these measurable steps, the agency will not have the information and planning tools it needs to make progress toward establishing a network that provides information-sharing capabilities needed by public health entities to prepare for and respond to emergencies, contends the GAO.

Further, auditors found other weaknesses in HHS’s planning efforts that they charge have contributed to the agency’s lack of progress toward creating the network, such as not following guidance developed by the HHS chief information officer for managing IT resources.

“According to the guidance, officials who manage IT initiatives are to involve a governance organization led by HHS’s CIO and designate a project team that includes a project manager and business owner,” states the report. “However, HHS did not designate such a team and did not involve the CIO in its planning efforts. As such, the department lacks the structure and mechanisms needed to plan, manage, and oversee actions for establishing the network. Until HHS adheres to its own guidance for managing the IT resources necessary to improve electronic information-sharing capabilities of systems and networks in use by public health entities throughout the country, it will likely continue to fall short in its efforts to establish the nationwide public health situational awareness network required by PAHPRA.”

GAO recommends that HHS complete a plan that includes all actions for establishing the network, develop a project management plan that identifies measurable steps for completing the actions, and conduct IT management processes according to CIO guidance.

HHS officials were not immediately available for comment about the audit. In addition, GAO notes that the agency had no comments regarding the report or the recommendations made by auditors.