Media Release: 2 May 2013

Compass Health will this winter be using new technology to monitor the demand that influenza like illness is placing on general practices throughout its network in the lower North Island. This will give the Primary Health Organisation an unprecedented capability to identify on a daily basis the need to deploy resources into the community as demand dictates based on the presentation of those with flu symptoms.

This is made possible by software created by Compass Health in collaboration with the University of Otago that uses a computer algorithm to automatically identify flu like symptoms from GP notes. Normally disease surveillance activities require GPs to identify particular diseases and undertake a manual process to ensure each incident of disease is counted. The new approach means GPs have to do nothing different from what they would do in the normal course of their clinical practice. Because it is an automated process, the data can be captured and reported frequently.

“As we learnt during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, flu hotspots can evolve and spread rapidly,” says Compass Health’s Clinical Director, Chris Kerr. “Using this new tool and tracking reports of flu-like symptoms allows us to immediately see when a General Practice or group of practices are potential hotspots.

“We can be proactive by providing extra clinical staff or instituting separate flu waiting rooms before a practice is swamped. This also provides us with an early warning system for when we may get close to a threshold to trigger our wider Pandemic Plan response. This capability has wider implications for timely responses at a DHB and national level.

“We’ve already noticed that some practices on the Kapiti coast have seen a sustained increase in general respiratory complaints in the last few weeks. This has allowed us to check in with those practices and ensure that they are coping with the increased demand on their services.”

Compass Health Director of Research and Tech Innovation, Jayden MacRae, says that general practices coped well with the influx of flu patients in 2009 because GPs concentrated on their most important role of treating patients, while putting off other non-essential or less urgent tasks.

“The time when we most need comprehensive data on presentations of flu-like illness is also the very time when manual recording systems take a back seat,” he says. “Following the 2009 pandemic we sat down with University of Otago researchers to find a better way of tracking influenza like illness. We realised that the routine information held in patient notes contained all the data we needed.”

“The way we are using the software with GP notes is a relatively novel approach to disease surveillance in the New Zealand health sector as far as we are aware.”

The software is deployed to 100 general practice systems. It took 12 months of initial development as part of the original research project and has been modified to be used operationally in practices over the past 18 months. This winter flu season will be the first where it is being used widely across Compass Health’s practice network.

“Aside from the flu surveillance benefits to PHOs, what this tool does,” says Otago University’s Dr Lynn McBain, “is allow researchers to unlock the wealth of information found in routinely-collected General Practice data and to then ask the appropriate questions of that data.”

Dr McBain says the collaboration between the university and a service delivery partner, like Compass Health, demonstrates how academic research can be quickly translated into real-world applications.

MacRae said that while the programme uses patient records, information identifying individual patients is not extracted. “We only use aggregated data so individual patients are not identified.”