HHS launches COVID-19 hospital capacity database

The Trump administration on Monday unveiled a new website designed to display COVID-19 hospitalization data.

The move comes one week after HHS directed hospitals and states to submit daily data reports to a new central database called HHS Protect and managed by the department, rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s long-standing National Healthcare Safety Network. The new website, the HHS Coronavirus Data Hub, is based on data from HHS Protect.

HHS officials have said it was necessary to create a consolidated database to corral COVID-19 information from hospitals, states and other public and private sources, however, some public health experts and politicians have raised concerns that researchers and agencies could lose access to the data as the new reporting process bypasses the CDC.

HHS Protect integrates information from 225 separate data sets, according to the department.

“U.S. healthcare data has often been fractured and inaccessible,” the HHS Coronavirus Data Hub website reads. “The whole-of-America response to the COVID-19 pandemic demands data sharing in near-real time.”

Federal and state health entities, including researchers at the CDC, have access to raw data through HHS Protect.

The HHS Coronavirus Data Hub doesn’t display all data sets that are a part of HHS Protect. Its main draw to date is a display of hospital capacity at the national and state levels, including utilization of inpatient and intensive-care unit beds. Users also have the option to download data sets from the website.

It’s designed to provide the public, researchers, entrepreneurs and policymakers with “timely information … to help drive insights and better health outcomes,” according to the data hub’s website.

Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group, said when she first heard about the reporting change last week, she was concerned it might signal a “compromise to transparency.” She said she’s since felt reassured by HHS’ decision to make some data public, as well as department officials’ repeated statements that the CDC will continue to have access to the raw data.

“Transparency’s the most important issue,” she said.

HHS officials last week said the biggest change hospitals will experience from the policy change is that HHS Protect will be able to more rapidly update the data elements that hospitals and states are prompted to submit as information about COVID-19 emerges. Binder said HHS should approach changes in data collection with caution.

“Data collection is not about demanding that a hospital give you what you want,” she said. “Data collection is about collaborating to get great data to the people who need it. You really have to work with a hospital directly and you have to engage with them.”

The reporting change already has posed challenges for some states.

Despite access to HHS Protect data sets, Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, said the group has faced challenges getting the information it needs to support COVID-19 planning for the state.

Previously, the Missouri Hospital Association had pulled hospital-reported data from the CDC’s NHSN, validated it and then provided it to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

However, HHS hasn’t asked hospitals to submit the same data elements in the same format when reporting to HHS Protect, according to Dillon, making it a challenge to validate the data.

HHS Protect also lists hospitals that have recently closed, which complicates determining what portion of facilities in the state are reporting COVID-19 information, he said.

That makes leaders at the Missouri Hospital Association nervous that data reported to HHS Protect won’t be broadly reflective of trends in the region. The group has paused releasing its daily and weekly reports on Missouri hospital data, and doesn’t plan to restart reporting that state-level information until they feel more confident in the completeness of the data set.

“Given the absence of our ability to confirm (the completeness of reporting), any data that we would release at the state level could potentially be wrong,” Dillon said. “If we publish it, people will make decisions based upon flawed information.”

Down the line, Dillon said HHS Protect could be a “really helpful dashboard that can provide data from the federal level down.” But in the interim, it’s caused a “significant disruption.”

That has been a concern among healthcare providers, who have expressed frustration that guidance related to the reporting change was published just a few days before hospitals were required to make the switch.

Dr. Grace Lee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children’s Health, last week told Modern Healthcare she was skeptical that quickly rolling out a new process for data reporting would reduce the reporting burden for hospitals.

She said hospitals are familiar with the NHSN, having used it for years before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“You’re asking people to change—in the middle of the COVID pandemic—how they’re reporting that data,” she said after HHS announced the reporting change. “Leveraging CDC’s NHSN, to me, makes a lot more sense than asking all the hospitals to switch the way they’re reporting.”

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