Webinar Summary: Fighting Covid-19 With Data

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Until recently, much of the discourse around data-driven insights within the decision-making process has focused on the corporate arena. Yet, our experiences over the last year give strong testimony to the fact that data’s benefits extend well beyond the business sphere. In fact, data is currently playing a leading role in the world’s struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But how can you use data — which is by default a historical artifact — to help guide real-time decisions for a once in a hundred year event with no previously recorded data? And how do you deal with ethical questions like data privacy when the lives of untold millions are at stake?

Our latest webinar, moderated by Karin Shalev-Shogol, GM of Elevation in Germany, delved into these questions and more. We were tremendously lucky to have hosted two of Israel’s premier epidemiologists as they shared their experience harnessing data to help Israeli decision-makers formulate their response to the pandemic.

Our panel was made up of esteemed guests including Prof. Hagai Levine, Professor of Epidemiology at the Hebrew University and the former chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, as well as Prof. Gabriel Chodik, Head of Epidemiology and the data-based Research Department at Maccabi Tech, one of Israel’s largest HMOs. 

Hundreds of participants from around the world tuned in to hear about how data is driving the success behind Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign. We also discussed the importance of using the right metrics to keep the public informed and how to make decisions when there’s limited data.

According to Prof. Levine, when it comes to decision-making, data should support specific, preset goals; when considering which choice will be more effective in the pursuit of a goal, data is highly effective at reducing at least some of the uncertainty. Even during a crisis like a pandemic, a cohesive effort should be made to establish goals, quickly define the type of data needed, set up tools to collect that data and then make informed decisions that support your predefined goals.  

But this is only possible when there’s infrastructure in place to collect the data and policymakers who know how to work with data i.e., they know how to ask the right questions and make decisions based on the relevant answers. In Israel, the data infrastructure was already established years ago by the health ministry and private organizations. Unfortunately, at least at first, the decision-makers did not know how to ask the right questions to wield that data effectively.

Apparently, Israeli policymakers aren’t alone in their inability to leverage data to better formulate their policies. According to an internal poll we ran during the webinar, most respondents believe that data is playing a very minor part in the pandemic response decision-making process in their respective governments: 

  • 70% of the respondents believe that politics is driving policy, not data. 
  • 30% feel that data is used to an extent, but is manipulated to support public opinion
  • No one thought that data is a major policy-driver.
Fighting Covid-19 With Data Webinar Poll

In Prof. Chodik’s opinion, Israel’s successful vaccination campaign came about as a result of a combination of its nationalized health organizations and an existing, robust data infrastructure. Every resident in Israel is registered with an HMO, which monitors their health, maintains ongoing contact, and keeps data records stretching back 20 years. This made the issue of scheduling very easy and enabled the immunization of the elderly and other vulnerable populations from the get-go. In addition, the nation’s small size simplified the frozen chain logistics.

What’s more, all health organizations are interconnected. Prof. Chodik gave an example of his vaccination, which was done in the hospital he works for. Although he also works at the Maccabi HMO and is insured with a different HMO, his vaccination at the hospital, which has no direct affiliation with either HMO, was immediately updated in both of the organizations’ records. 

When it comes to privacy, Prof. Levine is of the opinion that it’s ethical to use data to save lives. 

As long as the data is used professionally, there’s no issue.  Public health data can and should be used in the interest of the community. For example, individuals can pre-authorize the use of their data to help the public at large, ensuring that this process is streamlined when it’s required. There are, of course, still dilemmas, especially in the case of commercial Pharma organizations. However, when work is carried out in a professional manner it’s possible to minimize privacy infringements on the individual while maximizing the benefit to the public.

Photo by Maxime on Unsplash

Prof. Chodik’s view is that the pandemic represents a unique case that justifies the use of private, individual data for the greater good. Again, all efforts should be made to minimize privacy infringements by acting according to guidelines, in a professional manner. In Maccabi for example, individual-level data never leaves their premises. The only way to access it remotely is via a secure VPN. As far as the commercial aspect goes, Prof. Chodik believes that Pharma companies aren’t interested in illegal access to data. They simply have too much to lose. 

Metrics also play a crucial role in data-driven decision-making and should be aligned to reflect progress towards the goals one is trying to achieve. For example, if the goal is to reduce the caseload in hospitals, then the number of severe cases should be a leading metric. However, in Israel, the focus was on the number of additional infections each Covid patient generated — the R number. This made no sense, as R has no direct bearing on the hospital caseload. In fact, throughout most of the last year, looking only at the R justified a near-constant lockdown. 

If your goal is overall public health, additional indicators like increases in mental health and substance abuse cases caused by the stressful lockdowns also need to be taken into account. However, Prof. Levine explained that one metric simply isn’t enough to give a clear picture of a given situation.

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