Pitt researchers search for worldwide health care data

By Cristina Holtzer / News Editor

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Sharing public health data is one of the most important steps involved in containing “global health threats” such as Ebola, according to research from a Pitt Graduate School of Public Health team. 

The team announced on Nov. 24 the importance of public health data after the BMC Public Health, a medical journal, published their analysis in early November. Funding underdeveloped medical systems and international data sharing infrastructure are the solutions to the problem, the analysis revealed.

Lead author Willem G. van Panhuis, assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health, and his team identified six categories of barriers to medical data sharing worldwide: technical, motivational, economic, political, legal and ethical. 

Technical barriers, according to the study, include lost data, language barriers, lack of data collection standards or data not being collected at all. Motivational barriers include lack of incentives to collect data rather than committing time to other “pressing duties.” Economic barriers refer to the lack of resources by medical personnel. 

Most technical, motivational and economic barriers to data sharing are deeply rooted in the challenges of the lacking health care systems in low- and middle-income countries. 

“Identifying and classifying these barriers was the first step toward harnessing the potential of data for a new era in population health,” van Panhuis said in a release. “As our knowledge of these barriers increases, so will the opportunities for solutions.”

New data collection methods are developing all the time, van Panhuis said, but the framework to share the information is “seriously lacking.” Routine data systems are the solution, he said.

Political barriers, such as a lack of trust in a data collector or provider, legal barriers like protection of privacy and ethical barriers, including data collectors receiving little credit for their work, could be alleviated by more international cooperation, the study found. In its research, the team proposed a treaty for public health data-sharing worldwide and a commission to monitor data-sharing.   

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded the research. The team included ethics, law and health experts who studied more than 1,400 public health publications searching for reasons to explain the lack of international health data-sharing. They identified 20 “real or perceived” barriers. 

“These barriers and categories describe a landscape of challenges that must be addressed comprehensively, not piecemeal,” said senior author Donald S. Burke, dean of Pitt Public Health and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health. “We must work together as a global community to develop solutions and reap the benefits of data-sharing, which include saving lives through more efficient and effective public health programs.”

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