U of T students develop informatics platform to aid COVID-​19 decision making

May 25/2020

Rapid Evidence Access Link (REAL) is an COVID-19 evidence pipeline for government and health sector leaders

By: Nicole Bodnar

An interdisciplinary team of health systems students and professionals built a digital platform that rapidly provides reliable COVID-19 information to health sector leaders and decision-makers across Ontario.

Rapid Evidence Access Link (REAL) is a resource that crowdsources questions, scans credible evidence sources and produces concise notes on a variety of COVID-19 queries. REAL Notes are high-level summaries of evidence accessibly packaged for health systems leaders, policy and decision-makers, and Ontarians broadly.

“COVID-19 is sparking new demands on health system leaders and the surge of need is bigger than traditional communications can carry,” said Julia Zarb, Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Health Informatics (MHI) Program at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME).

Zarb was approached by Professor Adalsteinn Brown, Dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (home faculty of IHPME) who is supporting the Ontario Government’s pandemic response.

“There was a need to create a customized platform to connect decision-makers with credible COVID-19 information,” said Brown.

With Dean Brown’s support, Zarb assembled an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty from the Master of Health Informatics, System Leadership and Innovation as well as Public Health programs — many of whom were significantly disrupted due to COVID-19.

REAL intakes questions and synthesizes existing COVID-19 information across a variety of sources, including jurisdictional scans, grey literature, traditional and social media. Evidence summaries are vetted by an editorial board of industry experts, and transparently shared in a way that’s digestible for a wide audience.

“Our shared vision is to create a product that is equitable and accessible, so patients and providers alike can benefit from credible information produced in real-time,” said Sam Koirala, Master of Health Informatics candidate at IHPME and member of the REAL Team.

The team acknowledges that there are challenges and opportunities associated with bringing different levels and stages of knowledge together for rapid presentation, such as crediting evidence producers.

“By listening to evidence from a variety of settings, levels and geographies across the province — not just Toronto — we’re able to equitably answer pressing questions in a meaningful way,” said Koirala.

REAL launched on May 25, 2020 with advisory support from the DLSPH, Ministry of Health, Trillium Health Partners and insights from the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) and the COVID-19 Evidence Network to support Decision-making (COVID-END) at McMaster University.

“In the midst of the pandemic, decision-makers and health-care professionals need credible evidence relevant for application within their local institutions immediately, which is particularly tough when they are being pulled in multiple directions while laser-focused on patient care,” said Dr. Susan Law, Associate Professor at IHPME and Director of Research at Trillium Health Partners’ Institute for Better Health.

“The REAL summaries are concise, easy to digest, and based on the best available evidence,” said Law, who is also a collaborator on the REAL initiative.

Click here to visit the REAL website and ask a COVID-19 question.