Minnesota leads in use of data to reduce inequities in vaccine distribution

In March of 2020, a small group of healthcare leaders met about a critical issue in the face of Minnesota’s rapidly increasing spread of COVID-19.  For a long time, many of us have had a desire to use the rich data in electronic health records (EHRs) in a way that preserves patient privacy and allows us to aggregate healthcare data and understand what is happening across the state in a timely way. It was clear to our group last spring that the need for statewide healthcare information on COVID-19 infection and testing rate would be a key factor in Minnesota’s fight against the virus and that data was needed quickly.

Researchers from Hennepin Healthcare, the University of MN, M Health Fairview, Mayo, HealthPartners, and Essentia figured out how to share data without compromising privacy,  in partnership with ICSI, Minnesota Community Measurement, and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). While the group had already met and agreed to collaborate,  the new MN EHR Consortium focused on the COVID project first. Multiple healthcare organizations from across the state signed on to this project, and within a matter of weeks, the Consortium was producing weekly reports that included information not available in other COVID-19 surveillance reports.

Over the past year, the group has continued to expand as it gathers and disseminates key data that has helped inform Minnesota’s response to COVID-19, most recently regarding COVID vaccination rates. Currently, the data from the MN EHR Consortium links with data from the MDH Minnesota Immunization Information Connection, as well as from healthcare organizations including Allina Health, CentraCare, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, Essentia Health, M Health Fairview, University of Minnesota, HealthPartners, Hennepin Healthcare, Mayo Clinic, and Mayo Clinic Health System, the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, North Memorial Health, and Sanford Health.

Key to the MN EHR Consortium mission is to identify and address disparities in infection, testing, and vaccination rates by community, and across race and ethnicity. Right now, the Consortium data includes about 90% of Minnesotans who have received a COVID-19 vaccine and it has already proven valuable for action.  The statewide data has exposed gaps in COVID vaccination rates, for example, resulting in providers and health plans standing up new vaccination clinics in specific neighborhoods.  And we are seeing indications that the gaps are starting to close.

With data from the MN EHR Consortium, healthcare leaders are now able to see vaccination trends at a much more granular level, with weekly data on COVID vaccination trends reported through the Consortium by zip code. Data is also sorted by age group, income level, race, and ethnicity to help understand vaccination trends not only by geography but by specific demographics as well. This type of information has helped identify disparities in vaccination rates that might not have been readily apparent, within Somalian communities, Hispanic communities, and others.  In addition, these trends can be tracked week by week to see how responses may or may not be working to gain improvements.

The MN EHR Consortium has importance beyond informing responses to vaccination challenges as well. There is also great potential to use aggregate data for both public and population health initiatives by helping us better understand the impacts of inequities in care in a more comprehensive, real-time way, which of course allows us to respond more quickly and intelligently. For example, data can help us understand more about the impact of new approaches, like using virtual technologies to address chronic disease. That’s just one idea, of course, as the possibilities for this kind of initiative are endless.

The Consortium continues to expand its data pool, working with the state to better understand and address the challenges of vaccination for our homeless population, as well as meeting the needs of people who are incarcerated.

The bottom line is that this kind of collaboration between public and private entities using data is a powerful aid to understanding and meeting our citizens’ health needs without sacrificing patient privacy.  And it’s also unique. In fact, we don’t know of any other state doing this right now. The MN EHR Consortium COVID Project is definitely helping to improve Minnesota’s COVID response on a real-time basis. It will certainly have impacts that can help close the gap for many communities and populations and drive toward greater health equity well into the future for our state and perhaps for our country as well.