A screenshot of EpiCenter, HMS’s disease tracking software. (Image/Courtesy of HMS)

A young, information technology company based on the Northside has developed a data collection system that public health departments across the country are using to monitor H1N1 trends among hospital patients.

Located in the Riverside Center for Innovation near the North Shore, three-year old Health Monitoring Systems created and maintains EpiCenter — a software program that collects and mines hospital inpatient data in real-time and analyzes the data for public health professionals. This makes it easier for public health departments at the state and local level to track and respond quickly to sudden pandemics.

In the case of the H1N1 virus, for example, if an infected patient enters a hospital in Dayton, Ohio that uses the EpiCenter software, all their pre-diagnostic information (such as symptoms) that a doctor enters into the hospital’s computer database is immediately sent over the internet to HMS’s server in Pittsburgh. Here the program compiles the data and compares the patient’s symptoms to those of other patients in Dayton or Ohio at large.

If EpiCenter finds a correlation between specific symptoms or other information, it immediately sends a notice to health professionals at the Ohio Department of Health in Columbus. These professionals can then use the EpiCenter software to scour the data for themselves and judge whether a rise in H1N1 cases in Dayton is forming.

And all this, even before the doctor in Dayton has made a diagnosis (although that will be tracked too).

The company spun off of the University of Pittsburgh’s Real Time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance Laboratory, or RODS, in the summer of 2006. RODS was originally created through state and federal grants to create a data system that could track disease outbreaks and cases of bioterrorism. RODS became the principal monitoring system for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

After some grants began drying up, two laboratory employees decided to move the software they had helped develop into the private sector where they thought it would have a chance to grow.

“We said, ‘we can continue to use the RODS system, but we see its limits. We need a system that is flexible and can be used for people’s separate needs,’” said Steve DeFrancesco, HMS’s CIO and a former RODS employee.

He and fellow RODS colleague Kevin Hutchison, HMS’s president and CEO, developed the EpiCenter software, using the RODS system as a starting point, and began servicing some of the former lab’s clients.

Since then, HMS has doubled their number of clients, and Epicenter is now used by 15 state public health departments, many county health departments and over 350 hospitals. DeFrancesco said that data from close to 30,000 hospital visits are collected every day.

“Really, we’re just helping the [public] health departments and hospitals work together more efficiently so that the correct data is exchanged,” DeFrancesco said.

DeFrancesco said that the genius of Epicenter is in its built-in thresholds for different regions: regions in a state are assigned a predetermined number of expected cases of a particular disease that, if surpassed, communicates this spike to a health department.

Engineers in HMS’s 10-member staff also create specific alterations to EpiCenter so public health departments can better analyze the data. For instance, when the H1N1 virus hit headlines in April, many patients started arriving at emergency rooms to tell health workers that they thought they had the virus.

DeFrancesco said his staff developed a filter to assign any patient who mentioned swine flu to a specific group. This allowed public health departments to quickly separate folks who had flu-like symptoms from those who were simply concerned that they might have the virus.

While HMS is involved in states as far away as California, Pennsylvania hasn’t yet adopted the EpiCenter model because they are still using the RODS system.

HMS is not alone, however, in their real-time software. The Center for Disease Control runs a competing data collection program called BioSense with hospitals across the country.

“I would like to see efforts come together, DeFrancesco said, adding that HMS already sends some of their data to the CDC. “I think it would provide people, governments and health departments with better service.”

But for now, DeFrancesco and team are focusing on a new addition. In early 2010, HMS will launch a new, hospital-focused software. MediCenter, as it will be called, will “use similar processes” but will be geared toward helping doctors and nurses utilize patient data more efficiently.