Thursday, April 30, 2009


We are now in a Category 5 outbreak, with several cases of Swine Flu (H1N1) reported in Ontario.

I went through SARS in 2003; my hospital was at the epicenter of the second wave of the outbreak; I had been on the floor where the first cases were detected. I was quarantined; my practice partner volunteered for the SARS unit of the hospital and he took care of our colleagues and co-workers who were ill. I remember this.

At that time we had no way of rapidly communicating information. Most of us were receiving everything by fax; Public Health and other government agencies had no email lists of physicians. Our hospital department could not reach us (they didn’t have our email addresses either); the physician’s lounge was closed, and we could not pick up reports or information. Our department chiefs went to work and rapidly built up email lists; giving your email is now a routine part of reappointment for hospitals and medical organizations, and the lists have been maintained.

Since I started using the EMR, I have left my email on at all times at the office. I am now receiving updates on the outbreak from Public Health several times a day. My hospital also sends out routine updates and reminders, as does my Family Health Team; so do medical organizations, such as the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Ontario Medical Association. It is a bit overwhelming at times, as I get the same information from several different sources, but I am updated. Many of my colleagues use a Blackberry. I think the information “push” is now very good, and certainly light years of where we were in 2003.

However, it is still difficult for me to send back information to Public Health. They want us to report the information on cases of suspected swine flu by phone. This is going to be a problem if the numbers surge: they are going to be quickly overwhelmed, just like the last time. I think it would be better to upload via secure web, email, or fax as an alternative. Ideally, I’d like to send the information electronically straight from the EMR, but I know this is not possible because systems for this were never put in place.

I also think we should be able to automatically send some anonymized EMR data straight to public health; I would certainly volunteer to be a sentinel practice for this. Here is what I mean: I would like to automatically upload to Public Health temperature readings from my office (they are in a field in my database) with their associated EMR date and time stamps, linked to the patient’s postal code (only the first half, or Forward Sorting Area, FSA). It would not be difficult to aggregate temperatures and FSAs from several practices; Google does this kind of thing very well. Sort through it and pick out temperatures >38 degrees. You can quickly see the clusters of fever by geographic area. This would require special protection for privacy, but would potentially allow real time tracking of an outbreak in an emergency situation.

I’ve been thinking of the most efficient way to remember what I have to do and to record the data in the EMR; this is through an encounter template. What I did is program a template for my entire FHN (since we are on a common database), which contains all the information sent by Public Health—so we know what to do. As the information changes, I’ll just update the template. I put the phone and fax number of our local public health unit in our common FHN phone book; when I have a suspected case, I’ll load up the template, fill it, and save it to the record. I’ll then start a consult note to Public Health (which automatically contains all the required patient demographic information straight from the record, as well as my name, address, phone number and email), attach the encounter note to the letter, and electronically fax this to Public Health. Then I have a record of what I did, as well as of the fact that it was reported.

Perhaps Public Health could set up a secure email address for reporting, through eHealth Ontario’s ONEMail system. I have access to ONEMail (see previous post), and this would actually be a very good use of that system. Reports emailed within the ONEMail system are completely secure.

Here is the structure of the template; it is very simple. If you have an EMR, you are welcome to reproduce or modify this as you see fit.

  • Swine flu (ILI, Influenza Like Illness) template

  • Report all cases of Influenza-Like Illness (ILI) with a travel history to Mexico or contact with a case of swine flu in the last 7 days to the public health unit, phone xxx fax yyy

  • Travel to Mexico in past 7 days? (Y/N)

  • Contact of swine flu case in past 7 days? (Y/N)

  • Date of symptom onset:

  • Outpatient (Y/N)

  • Upper Respiratory Tract infection? (Y/N) OR

  • Lower respiratory tract infection? (Y/N)

  • Other Major symptoms such as gastroenteritis?

  • Temperature:

  • For patients presenting with ILI (Acute onset of fever and new/worse cough or shortness of breath; additional symptoms may include sore throat, arthralgia, myalgia, headache or prostration. In children under 5, gastrointestinal symptoms may also be present.) and a history of travel to Mexico or contact with a confirmed case within 7 days of onset of symptoms, a nasopharyngeal swab can be sent to the Toronto or regional public health laboratory.


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