It should surprise precisely no one that the top story of the year so far is an explainer describing the specifics of vaccine candidates. This particular January piece from our Dubai-based correspondent was focused specifically on the Middle East and North Africa region, but the headline’s enormous popularity with readers worldwide spoke to the pent up public excitement about these miracles of science and their promise of pointing to a way out of the pandemic.
Shortly before his inauguration, President Joe Biden made history by nominating Dr. Rachel Levine, a pediatrician and a professor at Penn State College of Medicine, to be assistant secretary of health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When confirmed by the Senate two months later, Levine became the first openly trans federal official in U.S. history.
A controversial plan to share medical records from patients in England’s National Health Service with third-party developers drew controversy earlier this month. A database with the medical histories of more than 55 million people would support “public health monitoring and interventions (including COVID-19) and enable many different areas of research,” as NHS Digital explained. There has been news since then: Patients were given an extra three months to opt out of the program, and U.K. health secretary Matt Hancock resigned after breaching COVID-19 rules.
Almost as hot a topic as vaccines is the concept of vaccine passports. (Or, as National Coordinator for Health IT Micky Tripathi prefers they be called, “vaccine credentials or vaccine certificates.”) In Europe, there’s much more of a public appetite for such digital documents than in the U.S. The “EU Digital COVID Certificate” is due to officially launch today, July 1. It provides proof that someone has been vaccinated for COVID-19, has recovered from the virus or has received a negative test result.
At the beginning of the year, Israel – one of the fastest-vaccinated nations on Earth – agreed to send Pfizer statistical data in exchange for COVID-19 vaccine doses, HITN’s U.K. correspondent Tammy Lovell reported that PM Benjamin Netanyahu (another politician who has left office since the story was first written) had announced a deal with the pharma company that would enable all citizens of Israel aged 16 and up to receive the vaccine by the end of March. Pfizer would send Israel a weekly consignment of between 100,000 and 500,000 vaccine doses. The biotech giant, in turn, would get anonymized data about side effects, efficacy, the time it takes for antibody development and other questions.
It may be easy to forget by now, but the early days of the vaccine rollout were marked by confusion and chaos, with many states relying on an array of unorthodox, ad hoc and patchwork systems to enable smoother scheduling of two-dose regimens. In Massachusetts, Olivia Adams, a developer at athenahealth on maternity leave with her newborn son, took matters into her own hands. Adams built a website over three weeks to help eligible individuals find available appointments in the Bay State more easily.
In January, the European Medicines Agency revealed that some data from development of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, stolen during a cyberattack in early December 2020, was illegally posted online. (It was likened by one security researcher to an act of war.) It also added to well-founded fears that bad actors would continue to take aim at critical vaccine supply chains.
In March, news of Amazon’s app-based healthcare service for employees, Amazon Care, expanding nationwide got some big attention. The news was confirmed two days later. “By supplying Amazon Care as a workplace benefit, employers are investing in the health and wellbeing of arguably their most important asset: their employees,” said Amazon officials.
In April, HITN Senior Editor Kat Jercich reported on a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. It found that more favorable EHR usability scores are associated with lower odds of burnout, but that those usability scores had bottomed out. Nurses assigned a mean EHR usability score of 57.6 – a failing grade, according to researchers. (Sadly, this is not a recent trend.) “The low marginal acceptability of nursing EHR usability scores reported here emphasizes the importance of improving EHR usability from the nursing perspective,” wrote researchers.
So far, 2021 has not been a busy marketplace of big-ticket M&A, as have some past years. But this acquisition, announced in early January, was a big deal – a marriage of analytics and revenue cycle expertise that aimed to “streamline and inform the vital clinical, administrative and payment processes on which healthcare providers and payers depend to serve patients,” said Andrew Witty, Optum CEO and UnitedHealth Group president.