Our Nation’s Immune System is Electronic
This guest post has been written by Jessica Orwig of Scientific Technologies Corporation to highlight the importance of Immunization Information Systems
When our body is infected with a virus or bacterium, our immune system will identify, target and often prevent the invading organism from flourishing and making us ill. While our biological immune system fights off infections to keep us healthy, our nation is also defending against disease outbreaks and keeping us as a population protected. Our nation’s immune system, however, is not biologic, it is electronic and it has a name: Immunization Information System (IIS).
Like arteries that carry disease-fighting cells throughout our bodies, a series of electronic networks in each state feeds information into their IIS. Each state has its own privacy-protected IIS, which includes names, locations and vaccine history for most of the state’s population. Two primary healthcare groups have access to and use this information in different ways to build and maintain healthy populations: state health departments and healthcare providers, like physicians.
In our bodies, neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that consume and render harmless foreign viruses, bacteria and parasitic cells. State health departments respond in an analogous way. Using their electronic IIS, they track vaccination coverage throughout their state to check for regions with low immunization coverage. Vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough can be highly contagious. To protect a population by preventing an epidemic, a certain percentage of that population needs to be vaccinated against these diseases. The percentage varies for each type of disease but on average is between 70 to 90 percent.
For regions of the state that have dangerously low immunization rates, the state health department will usually work with local healthcare practitioners and physicians in that region to increase the uptake of vaccines, thereby protecting more of the population and reducing the risk of a disease outbreak. Physicians may lengthen their office hours, healthcare facilities may offer free or low-cost vaccines, and the state and local health departments may assist with supporting temporary immunization stations at various community locations such as grocery stores and malls.
Neutrophils can only target viruses, bacteria and parasitic cells that the body’s antibodies mark as a threat. Without antibodies, neutrophils would not know what to attack. Similarly, state health departments are only capable of protecting a population if they have enough of the right information regarding the immunization status of the members of that population. That’s where healthcare providers come in. Like antibodies, local healthcare providers record their patients’ immunization status by using Electronic Health Records. These office-based systems exchange patient immunization information with the state’s IIS. That information helps state health departments know what regions need extra attention in vaccine outreach efforts.
In addition to protecting populations against disease outbreaks, IISs also reduce the frequency of “over immunization” – occasions where individuals are vaccinated unnecessarily because they have previously received the right number of immunizations for a particular disease. Reducing the frequency of “over-immunization” saves consumers’ money and preserves vaccines for others who truly need them.
One notable example follows when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in September 2005. The Louisiana Immunization Network for Kids (LINKS) facilitated access to over 18,900 of its immunization records by linking to the Houston-Harris County (Texas) Immunization Registry. As a result, thousands of displaced children, whose families evacuated the Louisiana, avoided needless duplicate immunizations because their immunization records could be accessed by healthcare authorities. This saved an estimated $1.6 million in vaccines and a total of $3.04 million in vaccines plus administration fees. It also allowed Texas healthcare personnel to correctly administer the proper immunizations to persons in need.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began offering planning grants to develop state IISs in the early ‘90s – today, 49 states use an IIS. One of CDC’s main goals for IISs is to increase the percentage of the nation’s children, younger than six years old, whose immunization records exist in an IIS to 95% by 2020. As of 2011, 84 percent of U.S. children younger than six years had immunization records in a state IIS, a two-percent increase from the previous year.
Historically, one drawback of IISs is that individuals cannot access it to retrieve their personal immunization history, the main obstacle being privacy concerns. Consumers must routinely contact their physician, or in a few states their health department, to retrieve it for them. The next generation of healthcare technology is focusing on empowering consumers by offering them methods to access their immunization records, eliminating the middle-man.
The federal Blue Button initiative is one recent example of the next-generation consumer health technology. Several federal agencies, led by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, have implemented this system. Originally conceived as a way for veterans to electronically access parts of their medical records from a secure website, the Blue Button initiative has expanded to include all U.S. residents. By mid-2013, an estimated 26 million people will have access to Blue Button systems, affording them rapid access to their personal medical records.
STC’s healthcare information technology tools add additional features to IISs that help healthcare professionals. Currently, STC’s IIS serves 7 state health departments, 77 thousand providers and 25 million patients.
Behind it all are health information technology firms, like Scientific Technologies Corporation (STC), that design and implement IISs across the nation. STC is the nation’s leading public health-oriented information technology firm. Compared to comparable firms, STC has provided services to more states, supported more IISs for longer and created more new functionality within its applications. Presently, 20% of the nation’s state health departments use STC’s IIS technology.
STC is also leading the way to provide consumers with a simple Internet-based application – called MyIR.net™ which provides electronic copies of immunization records from the state’s IIS. STC IIS applications are used on a daily basis around the nation, protecting millions of individuals and ensuring that entire populations remain free of the potentially devastating effects of vaccine-preventable disease.