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IT critical in pandemic response, but many are not paying attention

Scientists say it's not a matter of if, but when. And when pandemic flu hits – an event that could, at the least, keep large sections of the population from working, shut down travel and public institutions and cause infrastructure outages – information technology may be called on to ease the burden of coordinating both public efforts and business.

And if private companies do not prepare adequately, they could be left with more than an interruption of business as employees find they can't work effectively from home or remote sites, or maintain effective communications.

"Reasonable shareholder litigation could be based upon, look, you had all the warning in the world and you didn't exercise your fiduciary and financial responsibilities adequately by being able to run the business during this situation," said Gartner analyst Ken McGee. "You had years of warning."

Information technology is critical

In Wednesday's announcement that Wisconsin is preparing a pandemic preparedness plan with the national Department of Health and Human Services, officials didn't spend much time talking about information technology's role. But with many people unable to travel or staying home to avoid contracting flu, communications will be critical.
"Most of the efforts of the government are really toward developing magic bullets for addressing pandemic flu, and that's great, but we know from over 100 years of public health experience that basic public health efforts can have a huge impact to mitigate epidemics and pandemics," said Barry Chaiken, a doctor and associate chief medical officer of BearingPoint. "The tool we have today to make our public health efforts even better is IT - and IT meaning, specifically, distribution channels for information."

Using online resources such as the federal government's pandemic flu site, people can obtain vetted knowledge about the flu, what to do about it, and where it has or hasn't spread.

If an outbreak occurs, Chaiken said, people will need questions answered such as whether to take the train or not, how close to a given city the flu has been observed, should they go to work, and so on, and good use of IT systems could help both governments and businesses answer those questions.

Even if the pandemic does not come, or waits years, preparations would leave companies and governments with robust infrastructure for dealing with other disasters that could come along, be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks or something else unexpected.

Everyone unprepared, especially private sector

McGee said the public sector is somewhat more prepared than private organizations, mostly due to greater awareness promoted by public agencies such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Many public organizations are lagging, Chaiken said. And the private sector isn't paying attention.

"My organization has received one request from one of our clients to outline what we are doing for a potential pandemic ... It has been on my radar screen for many months now, haven't seen a thing," he said.

In Wisconsin, state agencies are preparing both plans and systems.

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"Communication is a key strategy, both human communication and technical communication," said Helene Nelson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services. She mentioned several databases the state maintains, including the Wisconsin Immunization Registry, and a web-accessible list of volunteer medical professionals.

Another popularly discussed health information technology, the electronic medical record, is not ready to help hospitals coordinate their efforts, Nelson said. "Many hospitals in the state have implemented an electronic medical records system already," she said. "Our efforts to link those systems will require more planning."

Nelson chairs the state's eHealth board, a 16-member group appointed by governor Jim Doyle to develop a strategic plan for statewide adoption and exchange of electronic medical records in five years.

"We're unconvinced that anything is ready to deal with a crisis like avian influenza," McGee said. "That's partly due to people's lack of awareness, certainly their lack of readiness, and their ability to differentiate, and the need to differentiate, between their typical disaster recovery plans and the recovery plans presented by the uniqueness of the avion influenza."

Even Wall Street, which could have a lot to lose or gain from an event of this magnitude, seems not particularly alarmed yet.

"I have asked everybody this question: so, if I want to make money on the pandemic if it's going to happen, what should I do with my assets?" Chaiken said. "And I get no responses ... it's almost like they haven't even thought about it. And you have to think that somebody on Wall Street is thinking about how can I make a couple trillion dollars playing off the disaster."

Assume you are on your own

Despite greater awareness in the public sector, private organizations and individuals will likely have to take a lot of responsibility in the case of a pandemic.

"We did get the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts to admit that there should not be an automatic expectation among people that the state will parachute in and solve all problems," McGee said. "In fact the presumption should be the opposite ... assume you are on your own for a few days"

When not just one facility is affected by a disaster, organizations can't just pick up and move to a backup facility, relying on other services to remain in place. Transportation and communication infrastructure and outsourced services could all be affected at once.

Organizations may find they need to deal with large numbers of employees working from home, or provide facilities where those employees can both work and live temporarily. If enough people are telecommuting, residential Internet providers may not be able to take the load, and some may not have access.

Besides dedicated emergency facilities with food and temporary living space, some of Gartner's recommended steps include asking outsourced providers for their disaster plans and ensuring key employees have communications technologies such as reliable Internet connections or satellite phones, which could work if landline or cell phone networks are overwhelmed – and planning and testing all of these services before an outbreak.

"To do all this planning in advance is the imperative," McGee said.

Want to hear more about pandemic flu, and how technology will be called on to help deal with it? It's one topic of the Digital Healthcare Conference in Madison on May 3-4. Visit the site now.

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