New York City is among many regions of the nation battling this year’s flu epidemic, and providers are reporting capacity issues with treating serious cases.

Northwell Health is facing an onslaught of serious flu cases, but the provider organization is using information technology to help it manage the resulting patient load from the virus.

A year ago, the delivery system, which operates 17 hospitals, started building a biosurveillance system to track and respond in near real time to the large volume of flu cases that it treats each year, and the new system went live in October.

“This is an important tool that helps us in terms of planning and managing patient care,” says Mark Swensen, an emergency management coordinator at Northwell.

Development of the system was based disease surveillance methods developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Public Health, says Stanley Cho, senior data analyst at Northwell Health.

During the first week of February, 12 Northwell Health hospitals that have been integrated into the tracking system have seen more than 10,500 patients with flu-like symptoms, and about 2,700 of those were admitted to its hospitals.

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Data analysts worked with physicians, labs, emergency department personnel, emergency management teams and clinical leadership to build the “flu dashboard,” an initiative that resulted in several different iterations before a final product was approved, says Cho.

Data being captured and presented on the dashboard includes flu visits to emergency departments, patients that been diagnosed, admissions, chief complaint, age, sex, ZIP codes, hospital presented and discharge disposition. The surveillance system also can identity the subtype of a flu strain.

While the surveillance system is presently being used for flu cases, it also can be used to quickly identify infectious diseases within any of Northwell’s hospitals, enabling more rapid response to any public health emergency and coordination with local, state and federal agencies.

Northwell is relying on its proprietary data, updated every 24 hours, to power the dashboard as flu data from the State of New York is generally one to two weeks old when delivered, Cho adds. “People wanted to know what was going on in the hospital at the moment.”

The data is helping the organization assess the resources it needs, such as Tamiflu, masks and gloves; the distribution of staff; placement of patients on treatment floors (flu patients must be separated from others); and steps to take to maximize patient safety, Cho explains.

Over the course of this year, the remaining five hospitals of Northwell Health will be added to the “flu” dashboard following work to upgrade those hospitals to the most current version of Northwell’s electronic health record system from Allscripts.

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