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Electronic Tracking Helps N.J. Hospitals Keep Ahead of Curve on Flu

RWJ Hamilton staffers saw first signs of widespread outbreak in early December.

When Anne Dikon saw a flu case in early December, she knew it was time to tell the staff at her hospital, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, to get ready for a potentially early flu season.

As the hospital’s infection prevention director, Dikon credits the hospital’s quick response to the outbreak to MedMined, an electronic surveillance program that the hospital uses to combat the spread of all infections, including the flu.

While this year’s influenza season in New Jersey has been earlier and more severe than in recent memory, some state healthcare providers had a head start in preparing for an increase in cases, thanks in part to the data mining made possible through the program. Both hospital and insurance officials are describing the program as an example of how information technology can be used to improve healthcare.

MedMined produces frequent and detailed data reports that allow hospitals to pinpoint potential sources of infections within a hospital quickly, as well as tracking whatever new infections a hospital’s patients are experiencing.

After the first six cases at RWJ Hamilton occurred by Dec. 10, the program produced a chart showing hospital staff members that a stark increase was occurring.

“It was very nice to prove what I had said,” said Dikon, who is also a registered nurse. “We started to see our community pattern [of flu cases], which was a change.”

Dikon said she was already wary of a potentially difficult flu season after a mild season last year, when the first case didn’t arrive until February and no one was admitted to the hospital for the flu.

As soon as RWJ Hamilton staff entered information about new flu patients, MedMined was turning this data into reports for Dikon. Since the first cases arrived in early December, the pace has increased rapidly, possibly fueled by large gatherings during the holidays, Dikon said. MedMined has been helpful in keeping RWJ Hamilton ahead of the curve, she said, with staff members being provided with early and frequent warnings to get vaccinated for the flu and to be aware of flu symptoms.

Through January 15, RWJ Hamilton has had 166 patients testing positive for the most common type of the flu, compared with 13 last year and 73 in the winter of 2010-2011. In addition, there have been roughly 20 admissions, Dikon said.

Prior to the introduction of MedMined at the hospital in 2005, Dikon relied on reports from the hospital’s laboratory staff to determine when new infections occurred. While she still uses these reports, the MedMined data is frequently faster, more detailed and presented in a format that is particularly helpful for informing other hospital staff members with details about the virus and how they should respond to it.

“It would show up even if it was just one” case, Dikon said.

Now Dikon is aware first thing in the morning about each new case that arrives overnight. In addition to tracking patients whose lab tests turn up positive for infections, MedMined also tracks when patients show flu-like symptoms or when doctors prescribe the antiviral drug Tamiflu, catching additional cases that were not tested.

Under the old system, “by the time you figured out what’s going on, you could have other things happening,” because of the time consumed studying reports, she said.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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