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UC San Diego-led effort takes on pandemic's pressing questions

Collaboration unites data from 12 health systems
COVID-19 hospitalizations
Posted at 12:38 PM, Oct 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 21:21:13-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — It has now been seven months since the pandemic began, and there are still a lot of questions about the best ways to treat patients with COVID-19.

Researchers at UC San Diego are leading an effort to produce swift and reliable answers that could help doctors tailor treatments and hospitals plan bed space more efficiently.

Doctors agree: the best way to fight any disease is to tailor the treatment for each individual based on their age, gender, race and other factors. But how does one doctor do that with a new disease like COVID-19, especially if their hospital has only seen a few hundred cases?

“There might be some patterns you can get from 500 patients but there might be some others that you cannot,” said UCSD professor Dr. Lucila Ohno-Machado, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics.

Dr. Ohno-Machado’s solution? Pool data.

She’s leading the charge behind COVID19questions.org, a collaboration between 12 medical systems spanning more than 200 hospitals across the country.

The collaboration includes several University of California health systems, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and the largest organization in the cohort, the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

“Each hospital is a little small to answer the questions. So by having it all together, we get the answers quicker,” said Ohno-Machado.

They’re going after answers on how long patients with diabetes or cancer stay in the hospital, and whether COVID-19 is deadlier for smokers or non-smokers.

Their findings revealed that men are much more likely to wind up on a ventilator than women.

And they quantified just how much better we’ve gotten at treating COVID-19 over time.

Since May 1, hospital stays among surviving patients have shrunk more than 10 days on average. That’s important for hospital managers planning and predicting bed space.

“We decided to open this to the public and to our colleagues, and then we pick which answers have not been answered before and seem to be of most general interest,” Dr. Ohno-Machado explained.

If this sounds like a straightforward approach, it’s not. Patient confidentiality laws make it hard for hospitals to share data and the information released by the CDC is limited.

Maintaining patient confidentiality while sharing granular data is the most groundbreaking feature of the collaboration, called Reliable Response Data Discovery or known by its Star Wars-inspired acronym, R2D2.

UCSD said R2D2 differs from other patient databases and registries because each health system maintains control of data rather than sharing it in a central repository. Through advanced computer techniques, each partner agency shares aggregated data, not patient-level information.

The collaboration’s research is based on what’s called “observational data,” so Dr. Ohno-Machado said it’s not a replacement for a randomized, controlled clinical trial, which takes time. She noted their data reflects lessons on hospitalized patients, not everyone infected with the virus.

But she said at a time when fast answers can save lives, COVID19questions.org could help.