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U.S. Postal Service Address Sorter Sought for Contact Tracing

July 24, 2020, 10:45 AM

The post office’s method of sorting and standardizing addresses could be a powerful tool to track the spread of the coronavirus.

Public health authorities use patients’ electronic health data—phone numbers, addresses, and dates of birth—to trace the spread of Covid-19 from those infected with the virus to people that could potentially be exposed to it, also known as contact tracing.

The U.S. Postal Service’s address formatting database could help doctors and electronic health record vendors sort patients’ addresses in a uniform way through the agency’s free online address tool, now used to make sure that packages are more efficiently shipped to homes and businesses.

“The response to this pandemic is really an all-hands-on-deck approach across government, and updating the address standardization tool to allow its use in health care would represent an opportunity to further contribute,” said Ben Moscovitch, health information technology project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Terms of Service

The USPS developed its set of rules with companies in the mailing industry on how records are sorted, standardized, stored, and shared.

Similarly, federal health regulators worked with doctors and hospitals to establish a separate set of standards for electronic health records.

The two sets of standards aren’t interchangeable, and to date haven’t needed to be. The USPS tool now is only available for shipping purposes, according to the service’s terms and conditions.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) requested in a July 15 letter that the Postal Service and Department of Health and Human Services negotiate how to make the USPS address tool available to health providers in order to improve contact tracing.

“Through this type of cross-agency collaboration, the USPS and HHS can better leverage innovative technology to better protect patients from harm and reduce health care costs due to fragmented record keeping,” she said.

A few health-care organizations reference the USPS standards as a way of creating uniform address lists and last names of patients, according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office report. But the rules aren’t universally applied by the industry, and health providers don’t have access to USPS tools to standardize the information.

In the health community, there’s general support around standardizing patient addresses from electronic health record vendors because it helps improve patient matching, said Hans Buitendijk, chair of the Electronic Health Record Association. But sometimes the resources aren’t available to clean up the data.

Emulate the Tool

If the USPS can’t directly share its address tool for copyright or other reasons, a copycat version is a possible workaround, said Colin J. Zick, a partner at Foley Hoag LLP who heads the firm’s health-care and data security practices.

“This would seem not that hard a thing even if you couldn’t use their tool, if you talk to USPS about how you could reverse engineer the tool,” Zick said. “Health-care providers could make a tool just like what the USPS has, and they can get the key details from the USPS.”

Errors in patient matching techniques in use now are caused by typos, a patient’s multiple address changes, and similar names or dates of birth on doctors’ records. The discrepancies can lead to the wrong data being matched with the wrong patient.

That was a problem before the pandemic, but now non-standardized patient data makes it difficult for public health authorities to track how Covid-19 spreads. “What our research found is that the variability in how addresses are formatted contributes to poor patient matching. For example, one system spells out street and another abbreviates it,” Moscovitch said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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