Researcher at the Department of Epidemiology at IPH
Quicker dissemination of vital information SAS makes health data more accessible
The Scientific Institute of Public Health (IPH) collects, analyzes, and publishes Belgian vital statistics. It also carries out epidemiology research. Its activities involve numerous information flows and vast quantities of data. With the help of SAS, the dissemination and visualization of health-related information has been greatly improved. Institute personnel as well as outside laboratories, hospitals, public authorities, and even individual doctors can now rapidly obtain the critical data they need through the Institute’s Web site. They can make up their own statistical reports in a user-friendly manner. Obtaining clear and correct health data has become far easier. It has also maximized the time Institute personnel can spend on their own research and interpretation of data.
What is the most frequent cause of death among Belgian men? Is some sort of epidemic about to break out? Do Flemish men live longer than their Walloon counterparts? How many women died of lung cancer last year? The IPH Epidemiology Department provides the answers to these as well as a wide variety of other health-related questions. They present useful information for universities and hospitals. They also provide the government with information to evaluate and adjust national health policy.
The Institute bases its answers partly on data which the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) provides. This includes raw data on the population, mortality and birth . This mass of vital data is aggregated, collated, and then classified by age, sex, time period, and district and then put into a single database. In addition, IPH relies on a network of 120 laboratories throughout Belgium which investigate blood samples for the presence of certain bacteria and viruses. IPH research results help detect and predict the outbreak of certain epidemics.
We have always aimed at improving the dissemination of health-related information. With SPMA-Internet and SAS, we have succeeded.
Researcher at the Department of Epidemiology at IPH
Readily accessible information
In order to facilitate the use of demographic and vital statistics, IPH created the Standardized Procedures for Mortality Analysis (SPMA) software. This is a menu-based interface between the database and various statistical procedures. The application offers Institute personnel the capability of pinpointing precise figures, for instance how many Belgian men died in motor vehicle accidents. One of the main advantages of SPMA is that it does not require any preliminary knowledge of statistics. Users need only choose the particular parameters, such as year, cause of death, statistical procedures and location. The result is that anyone can easily generate a highly accurate statistical report that tabulates the requested information in a clear and easily accessible manner.
The SPMA software has now been placed on the Institute’s Web site, making in-depth health information easily available, even for the non-specialist. “Putting the easy-to-use SPMA software on the Internet has made the analysis of Belgian vital statistics truly interactive,” states Sabine Drieskens, researcher at the Department of Epidemiology at IPH. “Students, doctors, even government ministers, can easily generate the statistical reports that best meet their needs and it only takes a few minutes.”
Faster dissemination of information
“Before SPMA-Internet, however, getting a tailor-made statistical report could take up to a week,” recalls Sabine. “The individuals needing information first had to contact us. We would then send standard statistical reports or a diskette with raw data. In the latter case, the users needed their own statistical package to extract any useful information from it.”
It’s a similar story when it comes to the dissemination of new data. Previously, users received new information days or weeks after the Institute collected it. Now it is available immediately. “SPMA-Internet is directly linked to our information server. Any new input is therefore instantly available on the Web site,” Sabine explains.
SAS makes life a little easier
IPH turned to SAS for the creation of SPMA-Internet. The link between the information server and the Institute’s Web site was easily accomplished using the SAS/IntrNet® module. This also made it possible to put the SPMA software on the Web site. Using SAS, the SPMA software was quickly translated into a SAS version and SPMA-Internet became a reality. One result is that both the statistical package and the data can be placed on a single server, increasing the speed of finding the desired information.
But there is much more to this story. “We also chose SAS for their user-friendliness,” Sabine adds. “With SAS, the visual presentation is more attractive and this gives the information even greater impact. Info can also be more easily exported to Excel spreadsheets. All these features make life a little easier for all of our users.”
Extranet for more delicate information
The SAS/IntrNet-module is also used to improve the dissemination of the results of IPH epidemic research. “These results are, however, a bit more delicate,” points out Yves Dupont, researcher at the Department of Epidemiology at IPH. “For instance, if research indicates that there are five cases of malaria in Antwerp, someone without the right professional background could wrongly interpret these results and start a panic.” This is one reason why IPH opted for an extranet. “Only clinical researchers, participants or public health authorities have the right to login. All of our epidemic research results are password protected.”
These extranet users enjoy the same benefits as those offered by the basic SPMA-Internet application. “They receive new data instantly and can make up their own reports by choosing a specific disease, bacteria, or virus, as well as a year and a geographical level,” explains Yves. “The extranet contains menus similar to those that are available on our Web site. In other words, users can always find the information quickly and in a user-friendly manner.”
More time for research
It is clear that the information user benefits from SPMA-Internet. Information dissemination has become far more time-efficient than it once was. Furthermore, users can now make up their own statistical reports and have quicker access to new data.
Researchers also benefit from it. “We now have more time to spend on the analysis and interpretation of health-related data,” explains Sabine. “Now that the distribution of information has improved, we don’t have to contact the users anymore to inform them on the availability of new data. Moreover, the time we spend on creating static reports has decreased dramatically. People are now able to create their own reports.”
A perfectly scalable solution
Although the SAS/IntrNet-module has already realized quite a number of benefits, more improvements will result as expansions are added. One of the capabilities IPH has in mind is trend analysis. This will give researchers the opportunity to find out how, for example, the number of Salmonella infections in Belgium has evolved over the last ten years. “This could also be useful for other parties such as the government,” Yves adds. “They can use trend analysis to evaluate their health policy. For instance, when analysis shows that the number of Salmonella infections has decreased, this may indicate that the government’s actions paid off.”
IPH is also planning to improve the data collection process. “In the future, we want to offer laboratories the opportunity to enter their data directly onto the extranet in our database,” points out Yves. “This also opens the door for more frequent updates, perhaps even on a daily basis. But for now, they still have to mail us the information at least once a week.”
A closer look at health in Belgium
The Scientific Institute of Public Health (IPH) analyzes, reports, and monitors the overall state of health of the Belgian population. The Institute, under public authority, focuses on, among other things, epidemiological surveillance, the control of federal norms, and the evaluation of health data. Its work can have profound effects on many diverse fields and disciplines, from microbiology and pharmaco-bromatology to epidemiology and toxicology.
Scientific Institute of Public Health
The easy-to-use menus make it possible for even the non-researcher to create a tailor-made report.
SAS visualizes health-related information in a more attractive and easier to understand manner.