Houston Methodist website provides flu tracking

A real-time website developed by pathologists at Houston Methodist health system can track confirmed flu cases with epidemiology data from its eight hospitals.

The website, which filters information by various pathogens and date intervals going back to 2015, actively reports on influenza A, influenza B, respiratory syncytial virus, as well as rhinovirus and enterovirus.

“It updates every morning with the previous day’s data,” says Wesley Long, MD, assistant professor of pathology and genomic medicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. “Every morning there’s a data pull that’s done from our lab information system and that gets imported into the website.”

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Houston Methodist is using the Chart.js framework—a popular open source library—to easily plot data in HTML5-based JavaScript charts for web applications, according to Paul Christensen, MD, a clinical informatics fellow at the health system.

While the website is available to anyone with an Internet connection and web browser, including those members of the public using mobile devices, the information is meant to assist clinicians in treating patients. In particular, the goal of providing physicians with access to accurate regional laboratory observation data during a flu epidemic is to help them develop a diagnostic and therapeutic strategy.

“It’s useful to our clinicians and to other clinicians in our community,” adds Long. “The benefit of making the data publicly available is that it eliminates the need for clinicians to have to log in to a secure healthcare IT environment to access the data.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors influenza-like illnesses (ILI) in the United States by gathering information from physicians’ reports about patients with ILI seeking medical attention—one of the most widely used methods for tracking flu.

Although CDC’s ILI data provides useful estimates of influenza activity, its availability has a lag time of one week or more, contends Long.

“A lot of things can change in a week or two in terms of how an epidemic progresses,” he observes. “That’s the main drawback of other data sources.”

Houston Methodist began developing the website during the fall 2017 flu season, when the greater Houston area recorded a major increase in flu cases, according to Long.

“This flu season, so far, has been fairly quiet,” he notes, while adding that the health system’s hospitals “are seeing higher rates of respiratory syncytial virus than we typically see this time year—but influenza itself has been relatively mild, especially compared to last year’s epidemic.”

Going forward, Houston Methodist is considering expanding the website to include epidemiology data for other diseases, such as gastrointestinal infections such as E. coli, Salmonella and Shigella.

“The other low-hanging fruit for this sort of reporting would be to look at our gastrointestinal illness panel,” concludes Long.

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