How constraints and urgency promote innovation
The development of PennOpen Pass (symptom tracker and exposure alert system) provides courses on how to focus on challenging factors so that new tools can be developed to meet the needs of the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought major population health challenges to communities around the world. In our corner of the world, as a university and academic medical center, this is a special challenge that university leadership poses to us.
Although our basic healthcare facilities have never ceased operations, most campus university activities have been suspended. Students are sent home to take classes remotely, and many university departments and administrative functions have also been converted to remote work.
Although we were initially asked to find a way to ensure the safe return of students, the scope of the problem quickly expanded to include all community members in all campus facilities. This expanded community includes students, faculty, staff, external contractors, patients, and visitors to our university campus and medical institutions.
As a health care information service team, we realize that we cannot solve this problem alone. However, we do know that our ability to conceive and provide effective digital technology solutions is critical to the successful realization of this goal.
Since safety is an important need for our community during a pandemic, we considered a wide range of potential solutions.
We brainstormed and explored various technical methods to detect close interpersonal relationships and collect information to support contact tracking that we can establish by ourselves or in collaboration with others. We met with other organizations around the world facing similar challenges to learn about their solutions to the problem.
Since we have considered technical feasibility, for example, the close connection between people is automatically detected through the Bluetooth signal of the smartphone, or the data from the wireless network is triangulated, the possible solutions we face are affected by the population” The “population” aspect restricts health – our community members and organizational stakeholders.
The message we hear over and over is: reach out to everyone. Privacy comes first.
The need to reach everyone in our community means that our digital solutions cannot rely on everyone with the latest technology. Some members of our community lack regular access to smartphones and computers, so we need to design manual alternatives as part of the solution.
Privacy is usually the biggest factor in determining what we do or don’t do. The solutions to determine the collection of location data or the recording of human interactions acceptable in certain parts of the world are too intrusive for our employees and students.
To address these issues, our privacy and legal team has developed a “Privacy Statement” that clearly states our goals and the actions we will or will not take. This helps make our work transparent to the community and provides a framework for approving future technological changes and data usage.
These considerations drive us to focus on what to build. We have developed PennOpen Pass, a daily symptom and exposure survey tool that can be provided through SMS text messages and web form surveys. This tool can provide advice on the next step for those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or experience exposure.
We have also developed tools to help employees manage the in-depth follow-up required for active cases. Through real-time API, our tracking and management solution can interoperate with our EHR and COVID-19 test results system.
Every day, we are able to understand how many people are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, how many people may be contact-related, and are required to be isolated to limit the number of faculty and staff who will have future contact. These efforts have helped us achieve our goal of ensuring the safety of the community while restoring education, research, and healthcare activities on campus.
As technicians, we often view the limitations of solutions as an obstacle to success. However, by providing the focus we need and focusing more quickly on solutions that truly meet the needs of our community, these limitations can be very helpful to us.
Glenn Fala is the Deputy Chief Information Officer of Penn Medicine.