Public Health Informatics Transforming Healthcare

Information Technology innovations are transforming our lives, and healthcare is one of the areas undergoing huge and exciting change as health informatics continues to evolve.

Health informatics involves a variety of sciences including information, computer, social, behavioral and management. It strives to improve the delivery of patient care through the generation of higher quality data for better informational baselines. Applied across the healthcare spectrum, from nursing and clinical medicine to occupational and physical therapy, it ultimately aims to create better quality of care and improved efficiencies, while also spurring new opportunities.

Public health informatics is an aspect that goes beyond the individual and informatics that are designed to drive improved treatments. Instead, this area focuses on the wider population and uses informatics to find ways to prevent diseases from spreading or from happening at all.

Ideally, PHI is intended to help drive smart public health decisions by being the channel for disease management information that is both timely and relevant, and that meets the requisite standards for quality.

Ensuring that PHI lives up to its potential is not without its challenges as the arena evolves.

For starters, there’s technology, where the greatest innovations tend to hinge on standards that are adopted and leveraged, and on systems that talk, listen and understand each other. Bringing these together can create issues of data quality and stymie progress. Moreover, there are challenges in transitioning from multiple public health information systems and workflows that are stand-alone and not easily integrated.

There’s also the people issue: Not only does the field need strong leaders to see the evolution of PHI through and ensure that the resources are there to do it, these leaders need to nurture a workforce that includes individuals who have the requisite expertise in PHI to execute strategies for change.

Still there’s a substantial payoff to successful PHI initiatives. Consider electronic health records. Under the HITECH Act, hospitals now have the economic incentive to transmit reportable laboratory results to public health agencies. As interoperability improves between providers and agencies, so will the speed and completeness of disease reporting and management.

A variety of initiatives are underway that are helping set new standards for the evolving world of PHI.

One is the Digital Bridge project, which is joining leaders in public health, electronic health records and healthcare providers in Chicago to create a more effective flow of information between public health and the healthcare community. The initiative was launched in June under the auspices of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Public Health Informatics Institute and Deloitte Consulting.

The project’s initial work is on electronic case reporting, focusing on infectious diseases. It is expected that the information bridge created will have the potential to boost the consistency and completeness, as well as the timeliness of public health surveillance data. The underlying work – developing governance principles and infrastructure improvements, for example – is expected to facilitate improved informatics relative to chronic conditions and other public health issues.

Another recently launched initiative is the Population Health Risk Assessment Support Engine (PHRASE). This project, led by two clinical informatics fellows at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, seeks to create an information flow between physicians and ambulatory providers and public health agencies. The idea is to match up public health recommendations with real time patient encounters.

This would be critical for situations such as the Zika virus. Take the physician whose pregnant patient just returned from Miami and has a fever. Keeping up with a rapidly changing knowledge base on current CDC treatment guidelines is critical. This sort of PHI initiative uses a Web services approach to ensure providers have access to in-context, real time information.

Health informatics is creating exciting opportunities to put new and better informational tools in the hands of healthcare providers at every level. PHI uses technology to join public and individual health interests and create better outcomes for the common good.

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