Data innovation: Unlocking valuable insights to help fight a pandemic

To say that state governments are stretched thin right now might be a bit of an understatement. Leaders and staff are working harder than ever — often in makeshift office space hastily carved out in their own homes.

COVID-19 is an all-consuming fight.

Adding one more item to an already long list of state “things-to-do” lists seems unkind. But data can ultimately be a big help in the next wave and the year to come.

There are treasure troves of data tucked away at various state agencies that hold great value in the COVID-19 fight.

It can help identify who is most at risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering the most severe complications. It can also identify communities most likely to suffer social, economic and financial challenges. And more important, it can help us understand what’s happened as well as predict what might occur and why.

That information is crucial to directing critical resources in a manner that is most impactful and cost-effective.

And I’m not only talking about guiding decisions that states need to make right now. Data can help states make fact-based assessments of how and what to manage going forward.

Should a predicted second wave of COVID-19 materialize, states with a data-driven understanding of round one will be vastly better prepared to meet the challenges in round two and can start planning now.

The key question is this: Will states have the data tools and analytics capabilities necessary to use that power? In other words, can they take advantage of the individual sets of data as well as unlock insights only revealed when data sets are combined? Can they get access to other data sources to help plan for the reopening of communities in a safe way?

The unique circumstances of this pandemic mean those abilities bring with them even more promise than usual. That’s because, as I write this, there’s even more data on the way with the power to give state efforts a COVID-19-specific boost.

A combination of factors has inspired a wide array of businesses, organizations, government agencies and others to pivot. Each is finding their own innovative way to contribute to the COVID-19 fight.

Ways that Optum can provide clients analytics and technology to better manage the crisis:

  • Data and analytics teams that are helping predict COVID-19 growth while assessing providers’ readiness
  • Rapidly identifying and anticipating exposure by population, person and locality
  • Keeping a pulse on resurgence of hotspots in communities from both clinical and economics lenses
  • Monitoring vulnerable populations in home to avoid unnecessary exposure
  • Stratifying risk in communities to trigger the appropriate action at a personal and community level
  • Directing individuals to risk-appropriate care, including helping to address clinical, behavioral and social supports
  • Enabling new self-support technology and tools to minimize risk to frontline health care professionals

At Optum, data is in our DNA. And we’ve expanded our analytics tools, including Optum Performance Analytics for HHS, to include new COVID-19-specific CDC guidelines on underlying conditions.

Optum state government clients can search their analytics data warehouse platforms to see which patients are at increased risk of suffering more severe cases.

In addition to the CDC-designated underlying health conditions, there are other factors to look at.

Consider social determinants of health — where a person lives can be an underlying condition. Density of population, access to health care, access to quality food — these all play a role in a person’s overall health. They can also be indicators of how severely COVID-19 might impact them.

The Advisory Board shared insights around how the pandemic is exacerbating issues people are already facing:

  • Housing instability. Even with many foreclosures and evictions temporarily halted, many still remain unprotected.
  • Food insecurity. Shortages of healthy essentials in stores and reduced public transportation for those in food deserts only worsen the situation.
  • Social isolation. The need for social distancing can lead to loneliness, a condition studies have shown leads to potentially lethal health behaviors like smoking, inactivity and poor sleep.
  • Prejudice and discrimination. The verbal harassment and physical assaults Asian Americans faced during the SARS epidemic have resurfaced with COVID-19. An added concern is this may lead to apprehension about seeking medical care when needed.

Also, states are beginning to track race and ethnicity. This data shows us that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color. It also shows people of color are more likely to have many of the underlying conditions that lead to more severe complications. Data may also hold the key to answering why people of color appear to be more likely to contract COVID-19.

One example: working from home. Federal data shows that for those able to work from home, 30% are white. For those identified as black or African American, the percentage drops to 20. For Hispanic or Latino, it’s just 16%.

If you’re less likely to be able to work from home, it stands to reason you’re more likely to be working in close proximity to others. And that means you’re more likely to be at risk of exposure.

All of those insights came to light in just the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Right now, Optum experts across the country are working alongside state partners and other innovators to uncover new insights to respond better to the crisis. Imagine what more we’ll be learning in the coming weeks and months — all through the power of data.

Right now, states are in the midst of dealing with the current pandemic. When it subsides — and it will — they should take time to gather their own data, and if it’s of value, data from outside innovators.

Having analytics tools and a data repository ingesting multiple data sources is key. States without a robust capability will unnecessarily struggle to understand what they’re up against.

Optum state government clients have access to massive, multidimensional data sources and AI-driven predictive analytics. That will help them predict exposure and anticipate demand for resources.

Right now, states are also using Optum data tools to track and coordinate their responses, guide them to recovery and plan for a potential second wave.

With data lighting the way, states have an opportunity to be better prepared for what happens next.

How are you using data in innovative ways to fight COVID-19? Let me know in the comments section below.

About the author

Don Johnson 2019

Don Johnson
Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Product for State Government, Optum

Don has over 20 years’ experience in engineering, architecture and innovation. Most recently, he was senior distinguished engineer for the Optum Advanced Technology Collaborative. In that role, he focused on artificial intelligence, blockchain and other advanced technologies to drive change to the health care system.

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