Improving Health Data Sharing for COVID-19 and Beyond – MeriTalk
At the start of the pandemic, federal, state and local government agencies across the country needed to quickly reach disparate populations with information about COVID-19, tests and vaccines – and quickly collect and assess pandemic data in several agencies and populations.
To help meet these new and unique challenges, the federal government has turned to Maximus, which has designed, developed and delivered impactful health and social service programs for over 40 years. MeriTalk sat down with Lisa Slaughter, Senior Vice President of Maximus Federal Services, to take stock of how agencies have used data and technology throughout the pandemic response and how lessons learned are informing new efforts to share and use data to improve public health.
MeriTalk: You have been actively involved in helping public health agencies respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about your efforts?
Lisa Slaughter: It started in March 2020. Maximus received a call from the White House COVID task force asking if we could attend a Sunday meeting on issues such as setting up federal testing sites and reporting results. to those tested. We had supported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information line before through a few pandemics, but nothing like COVID-19.
The next day they called us to support 47 sites in 12 states that were role models for the rest of the country. We set up a customer engagement center the same week and helped them interface directly with the labs so results could be delivered within 24 hours. We used data analytics to provide a report to the White House each morning that consolidated data on test results, age groups of those tested, and hardest hit regions. It was an extraordinary period in our history; we were proud to serve.
This experience has led us to assist several states, counties, and private companies, as well as extending our assistance to the federal government on a large scale. When the vaccines were ready for distribution, the CDC asked us to set up a massive customer engagement center to handle a wide range of vaccine inquiries — including general vaccine questions and helping people find resources for childcare and transportation. We have worked closely with our partners to put in place the latest technology capable of meeting demand and communicating with citizens on the desired platform and schedule. We were ready to take 500,000 calls per hour as well as handle SMS requests. We enlisted over 20,000 employees to support this effort, all in approximately 45-60 days.
MeriTalk: How have you seen agencies change their use of data and analytics due to pandemic-related needs?
Slaughter: The shutdown of society has required that we share all available information to help stem the tide of the pandemic and find our way back to normal. Agencies realized they needed to share data to coordinate with other agencies, testing facilities, vaccine suppliers, private companies and universities. By sharing this data and applying data analytics, the CDC was able to find, control, and contain the next hotspots, overcome the next supply chain gap, and help the communities that needed it most.
The requirement to share data has certainly strained aging federal infrastructure and the ability and flexibility of agencies to interact with each other. Processing huge amounts of data was difficult. As a result, agencies are looking to modernize quickly – move to the cloud, use more AI solutions, and ensure data security.
MeriTalk: What do public health agencies need today to have timely, accurate, and comprehensive data readily available for public health decision making?
Slaughter: They must collect public health information in a central repository. States are required to report certain data to the CDC, but it is difficult to do so easily, consistently and in a timely manner. In our mobile society, someone in New York can get on a plane and infect someone in California or abroad within hours. Therefore, we need visibility and details of who, how, when, and where hotspots are occurring in order to get a holistic view of near real-time data.
MeriTalk: Do you see Maximus as a hub for facilitating the collection and sharing of pandemic data within the federal government and up to state and local governments?
Slaughter: In a way, we are. Through our work with state and local governments, we know the types of information they have and how their systems fit together. And we work with some of the major federal organizations, which share similar data challenges. We look at questions like “If the CDC and Veterans Affairs shared this data, what would be the benefit to the public?” Because of our cross-agency work in Citizen Services, we find connections between states that they may not be able to see for themselves. We can say to our federal and state clients, “Did you know that this federal or state agency has X? You may want to tap into this resource.
To enable more information sharing, the government is seeking pilot projects and grant opportunities to test concepts before fully committing. We develop these programs so that we can present them to our customers and say, “It won’t cost you as much as a full-fledged engagement, and we can test and learn along the pilot journey.” Developing and implementing a proof of concept, especially for AI and data analytics, can lower the cost of entry into a program and have greater long-term cost benefits . The cost of change can be overwhelming, especially in this age of tight budgets.
MeriTalk: What lessons learned can you share from the pandemic response, and how will those lessons inform the future of public health?
Slaughter: It is understood that agencies need to overcome data ownership barriers that have prevented data sharing. Acquiring and implementing a common data platform is high on the list of many agencies. It is also understood that we must find new ways to deliver health care and ensure that it is equitable for all socio-economic categories.
MeriTalk: You have worked with partners to bring the latest technologies to raise awareness of vaccines. What technologies did Maximus bring and how did they help reach underserved populations?
Slaughter: We had great confidence in the idea that a large percentage of the population had access to a cell phone. Our partnership with Verizon, Twilio, and SuccessKPI has allowed us to quickly deliver information as quickly as possible through multiple contact channels – voice, text, and web. If someone wanted the nearest vaccination location, they simply texted us their postal code. Within seconds, they would get a list of the nearest locations. They didn’t have to wait in line or speak to an agent. Voice and SMS channels enabled real-time data for vaccine information. We have also provided services in over 100 languages.
We’ve integrated calls with the US Postal Service’s ordering system, allowing callers to order test kits without speaking to a live agent. Our data analytics engine connected to all contact channels so we could provide real-time data as well as user experience insights to the CDC. We tracked the number of test kits ordered and whether Customer Engagement Center agents needed more information to address callers’ concerns. Our team was the first to innovate to design as much self-service as possible, across all channels of engagement.
MeriTalk: What unique capabilities does Maximus bring as it strives to provide timely, secure and fair services to the public?
Slaughter: This is where Maximus shines as we can offer support at many levels of customer engagement. We continually update our customer engagement center and business process outsourcing technologies to improve efficiency to meet the needs of our customers. Today more than ever, we are improving the customer experience because we have real-time data. Many government agencies hear that it takes forever to find the right entity that can help citizens looking for services. We guide our government clients to the experience they want voters to have; in the long run, this saves agencies time and energy.
Our Health Innovation Center is made up of our public health experts and epidemiologists. We bring their knowledge to our public and federal health engagements whenever needed. In addition to hiring subject matter experts, we have made strategic acquisitions to provide innovative technology solutions to our customers and are always looking for creative ways to improve federal agency operations with product-independent solutions. Maximus is focused on moving people forward.