The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created a new data system in April 2020 to deal with collecting data on whether hospitals have enough beds and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during the pandemic, HHS changed its data collection methods and requirements – making it difficult for hospitals to report data.

HHS Protect, the ecosystem detailed in a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, captures national- and state-level data on inpatient and intensive care beds in use, personal protective equipment (PPE), and COVID-19 treatments.

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HHS has changed the way that data can be reported to HHS Protect, along with the reporting requirements, which were done to “capture more complete data and to capture more information, such as data on influenza-related hospitalizations and COVID-19 vaccines administered.”

“Reporting entities said they experienced multiple challenges implementing the changes, including a lack of clarity on the requirements and logistical challenges such as having to adapt their systems to provide the data,” wrote GAO. “As HHS made changes, HHS issued updated guidance to clarify reporting requirements.”

According to GAO, HHS uses hospital capacity data to address resource shortages to inform the public. However, public health stakeholders said they rely on state and local data for case investigation because they contained more detailed information and did not use HHS Protect data on hospital capacity.

Both HHS agency officials and stakeholders identified a need for stakeholder engagement and improved communication to ensure quality hospital capacity data collection during a public health emergency.

“Officials GAO interviewed from stakeholder organizations and selected states noted that increased collaboration and communication – as well as more time to implement changes – would have facilitated the implementation of the changes to the data collection process,” wrote GAO. “These lessons learned are consistent with GAO’s January 2021 recommendation that HHS engage with stakeholders to review and inform the alignment of ongoing data collection and reporting standards through establishing an expert committee.”

HHS agreed with the recommendation but has not implemented it as of June 2021. Additionally, GAO provided a draft of the new report to HHS for review and comment, but HHS had not provided a comment on the report.

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.