SAS® Analytics helps protect public from heat, infectious disease in Arizona county

Analytics saves valuable time in Pinal County’s fight against disease, heat-related illness

It’s hot in Arizona. Summer turns the winter vacation haven into a battleground between public health agencies and heat-related maladies. One county, Pinal, is wielding SAS® Analytics in the campaign to protect the public from dangerously high temperatures. The software also helps disease investigators in the Public Health Services District monitor and analyze hundreds of diseases, from the flu to STDs to measles.

Investigators treat heat stroke, hyperthermia and heat shock like other epidemiological threats, such as food-borne illness or norovirus. They look for spikes and clusters among populations and within certain geographies.

Pinal County analyzed years of data from the statewide mortality databases and hospital discharge data to uncover patterns and risk factors for heat-related illness. The heat illness project required analytics to make sense of a million rows and 200 columns of data.

Some surprising insights

Investigators thought they would see more heat-related illness among the elderly. But preliminary analysis shows younger people to be most at-risk. Graham Briggs, administrator for the Pinal County disease investigation program, suggests this could be due to people working outside. His team is doing further analysis to confirm that theory.

“Analytics helped us identify an unexpected at-risk population,” said Briggs. With more specific information, citizens can understand their personal risk, he points out. “As we investigate the causes, we can tailor outreach to provide citizens with information to protect themselves.”

Briggs’ team also identified clusters of heat-related illness in poorer parts of the county. They did so by integrating geospatial and socioeconomic data.

Quicker identification of diseases

In addition to heat-related illnesses, Pinal County disease investigators monitor the spread of hundreds of infectious and sexually transmitted diseases. SAS helps the department conduct biosurveillance by finding anomalies in disease data.

“It’s easy to spot something severe, like Hanta, meningitis or Ebola,” said Briggs. “For something like salmonella, it’s more difficult. Cases trickle in. It may take weeks to identify a cause. Analytics spots the trend earlier and helps public health officials focus their investigation.”

SAS also assists in case management, particularly with tuberculosis patients who endure long and complicated treatment. TB patients typically undergo six months of therapy, daily observations and countless tests, changing therapies at least once. The county monitors them closely to make sure medications are not causing severe side effects, such as liver damage and blindness. Public health officials also test the patient’s contacts, repeating the process 10 weeks into the program.

“SAS is helping us automate this arduous process,” said Briggs. “By combining lab results, treatment dates and follow-up plans, we can generate reports that cue people what needs to take place in a given week. This frees us up to investigate new cases coming in.”

Trend reports reveal which diseases are occurring at rates significantly above or below expectations over several years. Data visualization enables Briggs to share basic or complex information more easily with county leaders, health providers, emergency responders, the media and other agencies.

Briggs also uses SAS to generate long-term disease trend reports and to evaluate employee workloads. It helps him know the status of active cases and what his employees are working on.

Pinal County saves substantial staff time by automating processes and reports and providing easier access to information, according to Briggs.

“We’re able to create more informative, meaningful reports in a fraction of the time. SAS is a difference maker.”

Learn more about how public health agencies can use analytics to improve care delivery and contain costs.

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