KALAMAZOO, Mich.— A team of evaluation experts from WMU’s Evaluation Center is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the CDC Foundation to develop a strategy that could better track the spread of COVID-19. They’re evaluating an approach to electronic case reporting—eCR—to improve disease surveillance and response. Electronic case reporting is a major innovation in how health care providers report on occurrences of conditions or diseases as required by state or local laws. Most case reporting is done manually, with a substantial lag time. Electronic case reporting happens instantly and automatically through patient electronic health records. With the emergence of COVID-19, the speed and completeness of case reporting is more important than ever.
Dr. Lori Wingate, executive director of WMU’s Evaluation Center, is working on the evaluation project along with the center’s assistant director, Dr. Brad Watts, and project manager Valerie Marshall. When Wingate first got involved with the project, she was surprised that case reporting wasn’t already electronic.
“Currently, it’s pretty old school. Health care providers typically share the information with public health agencies by email, phone or fax," she explains. "That might seem hard to believe in the 21st century, but you also have to keep in mind this is a huge and complex system that requires communication across multiple levels and organizations. And of course, it must be done in a way that protects the privacy of individuals. It’s very complicated and high-stakes.”
Wingate has been providing subject matter expertise on program evaluation to the CDC since 2011. The CDC ‘s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services engaged her in 2017 to provide advice about how to evaluate a new eCR initiative in a handful of public health jurisdictions. Following the completion of that work, the CDC wanted help in developing an evaluation strategy that could be easily adopted by additional public health jurisdictions looking to transition from traditional reporting to eCR. That was an opportunity to bring in other evaluation experts at The Evaluation Center.
“The really special thing about WMU’s Evaluation Center is that our staff is trained in program evaluation, and we can apply our knowledge and skills to pretty much any topic area,” says Wingate. “Public health case reporting isn’t something our staff members have expertise in. What we know how to do is help our clients think critically about their programs, think through the kinds of evidence that’s needed to assess program quality and help them use what they learn through evaluation to be strategic with their resources.”
The center’s work with the CDC started before COVID-19 was a major problem in the United States. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has affected planning for the evaluation of eCR. According to Watts, evaluating during the emergence of COVID-19 requires adaptability at every level. “When we started working on this project, eCR was being tested at a few sites and rolling out over the course of a few months. COVID-19 has trimmed that schedule down to a few days. Our challenge is to quickly adapt to this change in order to help the CDC develop an evaluation strategy that fits this new reality.”
Marshall, who joined The Evaluation Center less than a year ago, describes working with the CDC as exciting and rewarding. “Our partners at the CDC are at the forefront of electronic case reporting, and it has been an exciting experience to collaborate with them on such a timely issue that can really help health care workers and protect public health, especially in this time of need.”
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