Drugstore Industry Database May Help in Bioterror Fight
The drugstore industry has a "powerful database" that could provide "vital information in the battle" against bioterrorism, but the Wall Street Journal reports that few public health agencies can "take advantage of it." The pharmacy industry, a "vast network controlled by giants" such as CVS Corp., Rite Aid Corp. and Walgreen Co., has "sophisticated" inventory technology that allows the companies to monitor sales of aspirin, cough drops and diarrhea medicine -- information that health officials "need for early detection of an outbreak." However, one in 10 public health agencies has no Internet access, and about half lack high-speed modems. In addition, agencies that have the latest technology would still require funding to establish systems to receive the information from drugstores. Carol Hively, a Walgreen spokesperson, said that since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, health departments from several states have asked for access to the company's "high-speed inventory tracking system." She said, however, that for "such a system to work," health officials would have to build a network to receive information "not only from drugstores but also from supermarkets and mass merchandisers." The information would not include data on individual patients, and as a result, according to most health officials, privacy "would not be an issue." CVS spokesperson Todd Andrews said that the company receives sales data "in real time" from retail outlets but uses most of the information to control inventory. He said that "no one knows" whether health officials could process the data to help in disease detection. In addition, he said that health departments have not asked the company to help identify "abnormal" disease outbreaks. Bill Smock, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Louisville, said that pharmacy data "certainly could be used as a red flag, just like tracking EMS or 911 calls." However, he added that the information "would probably not be the top priority" for health departments without a "comprehensive sentinel system." Smock said that health departments should first establish a system to link emergency departments to a central computer that tracks hospital admissions, discharges and discharge diagnoses (Eig/Burton, Wall Street Journal, 11/13).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.