‘It’s been crazy’: how COVID-19 data fast-tracked Sadiya’s digital health career

Sadiya Askar was one of the first health informatics graduates hired by the Victorian Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team. She takes us behind the scenes in a typical day of data wrangling during a pandemic.

They say if you want to get promoted in the Army, join during a war. In Sadiya Askar’s case, the war is a global pandemic, and experienced health informatics alumni like her have never been more in demand.

Just a few months after completing her Bachelor of Health Sciences/Bachelor of Health Information Management at La Trobe, Sadiya was hired by the Victorian Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team. She and other La Trobe graduates became instrumental in the battle to wrangle data as Victoria’s cases peaked.

“It’s been crazy. After uni and graduation, I got a job with the Department of Health in February 2020. I was one of the first to be brought on in the informatics team in a COVID-19 position,” she says.

“Back then, it was just me and one other person. We were part of the Communicable Diseases section, which is responsible for all the notifiable diseases, like pertussis, influenza and STIs. And, because COVID was new, it went to that section, too.”

As COVID-19 hit Australia, the Department moved quickly to recruit people to COVID-specific roles in health informatics. Health informatics involves things like developing and managing health information systems, analysing health data, and conducting research using health information – critical work during a pandemic.

For Sadiya, being part of a fast-growing response team felt like an exciting rollercoaster ride.

“As soon as COVID started blowing up, the Department were hiring more and more people. We moved floors and desks all the time, it was constant change and constant adapting. When I started, I thought I’d get my own desk, I’d get my own snack drawer, I’d get things set up – but I couldn’t, because we kept moving! I saw informatics grow from one or two people, to an entire floor to accommodate the large number of staff. The way everything progressed was really great to see!”

As the Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team grew, Sadiya encouraged her fellow La Trobe alumni to apply for jobs. Now, several of them are working in the team.

“I don’t know who a better fit for the COVID-19 informatics team would be than La Trobe Health Information Management graduates,” she says.

Shaking up a pen-and-paper system

Today, Victoria’s health department is digitising its COVID contact tracing process. But back when Sadiya started, the systems were not only heavily paper-based, but also ‘being made up on the go’.

Data of all shapes, sizes and formats were coming to Sadiya’s team for processing – from handwritten case notes from contact tracers, to lab results and doctors’ diagnoses.

“I started in a Surveillance Officer role within the COVID-19 Informatics team. We received notifications from doctors by fax, email or telephone. And we’d also get handwritten questionnaires from the contact tracing team, who were interviewing individual cases. Or, we’d get spreadsheets of an individual case’s many, many close contacts. I’d have to decipher all of this and enter it in the system, often transferring from paper to digital,” Sadiya says.

Sadiya says La Trobe taught her to see the possibilities and gave her and her peers the tools and confidence to push for better information management.

“La Trobe trained us to such a high standard, so you want to perform to that. You innately want to improve things – like using paper-based records – because the University drilled it into us for four years. So, we knew how to deal with it.”

Sadiya’s confidence and top performance caught the Department’s eye. Within a few months, she was promoted from Surveillance Officer to Data Manager, where she managed the Informatics team.

“As a Data Manager, I was doing more data quality checks. All the big laboratories would send their lab results to us in a big spreadsheet and my team would have to clean it up and import it into the system,” she says.

In a situation with no precedents, Sadiya used first principles, looking at how she was entering data and what qualities would make it most useful. She also improved communication between different COVID-response teams.

“One of the things I’m most proud of was that I built bridges between the Informatics team and many other teams within the response, like the Data Management and Analytics team. Everyone was doing their own thing and it was disjointed,” she says.

“I wanted to know how they would use our data, what they were using different fields for, so we could enter it in a way that was useful, for mapping and geocoding – because data quality is a function of who’s using it.”

Using data to map COVID-19 transmission

While there were lots of highlights to her job, Sadiya’s stand-out was when she and her team started mapping movement histories for individual cases.

“That was very, very cool! We were mapping every single location that a person had gone to over a 14-day period. So, if one random person in the system was at the shopping centre at a specific time, we could link it to another random person who was there at the same time. By linking the cases, we could begin to assume community transmission between completely random people,” she says.

“It was amazing to see how one piece of data could become a big, tangible heatmap. Being in a pandemic, the data I’d process in my workday, I’d see on the news the next day. I’d be on the phone to mum and saying, “Ma, look! That’s me!”

For those of us addicted to checking daily case numbers and epidemiological curves, having the Department of Health’s COVID-19 data visualised each day has been beneficial. Sadiya, too, has a greater appreciation for the numbers.

“I’ve seen all the dashboards the Department of Health produces so the public can follow along with how the COVID-19 case numbers are going. It’s so readily available. And it’s so beautiful!”

An eHealth opportunity and a vibrant future

Keen to consolidate her experience as part of the COVID-19 response team, Sadiya recently took on a full-time role with eHealth NSW. There, she’s working as a Program Support Officer to help deliver a new state-wide radiology information system.

“The project I’m working on now is called the Radiology Information System and Picture Archiving and Communication (RIS-PACS). It’s another very dynamic role, and it’s fascinating to be part of the project team. I get to see how much work goes into coordinating a project across the entire state.”

The RIS-PACS system is designed to safely store millions of medical images each year – from x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, to nuclear medicine scans and ultrasounds. It will give clinicians anywhere in NSW instant access to patient data and can even send SMS reminders to patients about their upcoming appointments.

For Sadiya, the project is one of many incredible career opportunities that await. As COVID-19 increases the intersection of digital technologies and healthcare, it’s clear that health informatics alumni like her are on a path to a bright future.

“COVID-19 has accelerated my career. And being part of the response and seeing the impact of my work on the community was really exciting!” she says.

Back at La Trobe, lecturer and alumnus Dennis Wollershiem says the Department were fortunate to tap into Sadiya’s talent at such a crucial time.

“Sadiya was just the right person for the job, because she’s logical, sensible and personable. It wasn’t like you could say, ‘Oh, we’ll go and look at the procedures at AIHW for this’, you had to make it up as you go, from first principles. And that’s her superpower, she’s darn good at it. They got a good deal, they got someone so good,” he says.

And as Victoria’s COVID-19 response goes digital, Dennis is also balancing teaching with work for the Department of Health’s rapidly digitised contact tracing team. He hopes the class of 2020 will follow in Sadiya’s impressive career footsteps.

“My students are really excited this year. They can see the opportunity and they can’t wait to get out there.”