The UTHSC team’s COVID data system is highlighted in the Journal of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness

The COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Tiger Lane, established through a collaboration between UTHSC faculty and local government officials, has provided data to the Memphis Pandemic Health Informatics System (MEMPHI-SYS).

When COVID-19 hit the Mid-South in 2020, researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center quickly saw how Memphis was struggling to keep up with the rapid progression of the pandemic. Therefore, they must work.

In a report recently published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, senior authors write David Schwartz, MD, FACR, professor and chair of radiation oncology at UTHSC School of Medicine, and Arash Shabannejad, PhD, MPH, associate professor and director of Population and Precision Health at UTHSC. -ORNL Biomedical Informatics, show how they helped lead a multidisciplinary team at UTHSC and the University of Memphis to create a unique community-focused COVID-19 data registry called the Memphis Health-Epidemiological Information System (MEMPHI-SYS).

The registry is a direct offshoot of the Tiger Lane drive-through COVID-19 testing site in the Mid-South Fairgrounds, an initiative led by Dr. Schwartz in collaboration with the Shelby County Health Department and the City of Memphis to make COVID testing available to the public for free.

“Dr. Shabannejad and I have worked together in the past to look at the role of data science in cancer treatment,” said Dr. Schwartz. “Since we were collecting clinical data, such as symptoms and patients’ recruitment status, from the Tiger Lane test site, we decided to take advantage of Clinical expertise and data science here at UTHSC in Memphis to begin answering questions about the epidemiology, patterns of spread and presentation of COVID in the early days of the pandemic.”

Dr. David Schwartz, far left, and Dr. John McCullers of the College of Medicine, far right, stand with students who have volunteered to work at the Tiger Lane coronavirus testing site.

As the report, titled Memphis Health and Epidemiological Information System (MEMPHI-SYS) – Creating a Metropolitan COVID-19 Data Registry Directly Linked to Community Testing to enhance population health monitoring, shows, testing sites are asking patients to schedule an appointment by phone or using an online chatbot. Each patient provided their demographic information, geographic locations, medical history highlights, history of exposure to COVID, and risk factors for COVID complications. MEMPHI-SYS provided a platform to collect, analyze, and aggregate patient information on a HIPAA-compliant dashboard where healthcare providers, community partners, government officials, and other stakeholders can access it.

According to the authors, a system like MEMPHI-SYS was badly needed in Memphis. When Covid hit, Dr. Schwartz said, the region lacked the resources to respond to large public health events.

“We had to do a crash course in citywide infectious disease response in the middle of the first large-scale public health emergency of our generation,” said Dr. Schwartz. “There’s no way you’d be able to respond with appropriately resourced, localized testing and intervention without data. We didn’t have that in 2020, so we were pretty much making best guesses about where to put those resources and how to properly size and scope those resources.”

While it was created in response to COVID, MEMPHI-SYS is designed futuristic. Because of the registration, Dr. Shabannejad said that leaders will be able to make better informed decisions in the future. “The platform is not data-driven, so it’s readily available to change it to any other public health disaster,” he said. “We can use this system to guide public leaders and inform policy and decision making regarding resource allocation.”

“I am very proud of the amazing work of Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Shabannejad. Not only were they leaders in our initial strategy to combat COVID-19, but their work has also led to a powerful tool for combating future infectious threats.

Scott Strom, MD, executive dean of the College of Medicine

According to the report, the registry will also serve as a data repository to help improve population health monitoring and reduce health disparities and social risks in disadvantaged neighborhoods. UTHSC’s Office of Community Health Engagement plans to continue to use geographic and demographic data in MEMPHI-SYS to prioritize outreach and direct distribution of medical, behavioral, and social resources toward neighborhoods of greatest need.

The data can also be used to anticipate, detect, and monitor health problems that may arise in certain local areas. “If you collect historical data on a patient, you can potentially predict the patient’s future health condition. Now, we can do the same for pretty much all of the residents of Memphis,” said Dr. Shabannejad.

MEMPHI-SYS does not only contribute to the field of public health. According to Dr. Shabannejad, it also helps advance artificial intelligence (AI) and data science technologies. Dr. Schwartz praised his counterpart’s work in pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge AI technologies.

“The big problem with AI is that human users can’t easily see how a particular algorithm works inside its black box,” said Dr. Schwartz. “The groundbreaking aspect of Dr. Shabannejad’s work is that we are able to look under the hood. His platform can display an understandable ‘dashboard’ to the human mind, showing how our AI arrived at its answer in the first place. What we aim to do is take in a huge amount of socioeconomic and epidemiological data in a transparent and interpretable manner so that providers, patients and policy leaders can quickly understand and act on it, even in the midst of a public health emergency. That is the level of preparation that Memphis needs and should expect. We will lead the country in this.”

According to the research paper, MEMPHI-SYS was made possible by the collaboration of physicians, data scientists, biostatisticians, geospatial mapping experts, community educators, and behavioral health professionals. Five additional senior team members are on UTHSC faculty: Robert Davis, MD, MPH, founding director of the UTHSC-ORNL Center for Biomedical Informatics, who provided biomedical informatics expertise; Fridtjof Thomas, PhD, professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Preventive Medicine, served as data science lead on the team; Karen S. Johnson, MD, MPH, chief of preventive medicine, provided guidance and expertise in population health sciences; and Altha Stewart, MD, senior associate dean for community health engagement, and Laura Harris, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry in the College of Medicine, researched ways to implement data after it was put into the registry. Esra Ozdenerul, Ph.D., Professor of Geographic Information Systems at the University of Memphis, provided expertise in geospatial informatics.

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