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2021-09-16

DGHM Congress 2021 – notes and thoughts

I had the pleasure of attending the 73rd Annual Conference of the German Society for Hygiene and Microbiology e. V.. To begin I’d like to offer some kudos to the organizers as it was a well-organized virtual event - full of presentations and insights about the changes due to COVID-19 and overall, an inspiring experience.

Although the topics varied significantly, there were three main takeaways for me from a hygiene and infection prevention perspective:

  • The need for better data
  • Data without context is useless
  • Using data to communicate is key

 
Let’s explore each of them a little to explain what I discovered.

The need for better data
If you want to know what’s going on then you need accurate and real-time data. This was a recurring theme throughout the expert talks at the event. In fact, it was the first thing mentioned at the opening of the event and the final thing mentioned in the closing lecture. The message could not have been any clearer: Data is the key to better practice. You cannot effectively manage and improve practices without putting meaningful measures in place. Many papers described the use of manual surveys and data collection to gather the necessary data, but I believe that we can achieve such data gathering more successfully with technology. When resources in infection control are more stretched than ever it makes little sense to distract people with manual data collection, cleaning, and interpretation tasks. The future clearly lies in amplifying the efforts of infection prevention teams by automating tedious data collection, analysis, and visualization work.

Alison Holmes (Imperial College, London) said that the use of emerging technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence will significantly improve infection control – but in practice I found very few talks on these topics at the event.

Data without context is useless
The key observation is that we need better data and not simply more data. Too much data can be just as much of a problem as insufficient data, obscuring the things we need to know in a deluge of things we don’t. Gathering increasing amounts of data is not a magic wand that will excuse us from having to do the difficult work of identifying the right measures and aggregating only the data necessary to support their improvement. Raw data must be gathered with a clear intent and interpreted using this intent to produce actionable insights. But complex data interpretation requires different capabilities from those needed within traditional infection control teams. To overcome this challenge, I believe that teams should have access to data science experts that can prepare reliable, interpretable, and trustable algorithms.

Thomas Wiegand (Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz-Institut) talked about the need for transparency and safety in the AI-driven innovation and Nada Malou (Medecins Sans Frontieres) introduced a cool AI-based app called Antibiogo that supports non-expert laboratory technicians measuring and interpreting antibiotic susceptibility tests (AST).

General communication training with an emphasis on storytelling with data would be a powerful tool in infection control.

Using data to communicate
When you get to the bottom line, the fundamental purpose of gathering and interpreting data is to inspire action. You need to persuade people to change their working processes and practices to reduce infection. And while this requires a different skill set than data collection and interpretation, the data itself can be used as a key element within the storytelling necessary to inspire change. While data-led storytelling is an underestimated discipline, it can be a powerful tool for infection control teams, allowing them to effectively communicate the reason for changes in process to people whose activities may be contributing to unnecessary infection.

Cornelia Betsch (Universität Erfurt) clearly described the need for effective strategies for communicating information in the lecture „The importance of social and behavioral sciences in infection control“, while Thomas Lengerke (Medizinische Hochschule Hannover) presented results from the WACH trial (Wound Infections and Antibiotics Consumption in Surgery) that showed improved hygiene outcomes as a result of communication training for infection control teams. If we can combine general communication training with an emphasis on storytelling with data, I believe that we will have a powerful tool for social change within hospitals.

Summary
The congress brought together many excellent scientists in the field, and I was happy to attend it. I found the themes of communication particularly inspiring and was impressed by the possible outcomes of the WACH trial. I believe that the initial success of such training could be significantly enhanced by weaving evidence – in the form of good data – into communication strategies, something that could apply equally to many more contributions presented at the congress. Automation, data analytics and data storytelling are only going to grow in importance over the next few years, and I am excited that our products will help enable this new wave of data-driven healthcare transformation.

I look forward to attending the congress again next year!

Jakub

PS: IMHO, virtual events can be great for listening to lectures, but I still miss the human interactions that come from in person meetings. I hope we can see a return to those soon.

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