Common Ground: Transforming Public Health Information Systems

An RWJF National Program

Dates of Program: May 2006–January 2013

Field of Work: Public health informatics

Problem Synopsis: State and local public health agencies need access to timely, accurate, and appropriate information to respond effectively to a range of public health threats. In 2006, when Common Ground was launched, many agencies lacked the ability to collect, store, analyze, and share the information needed for a coordinated response to disease prevention and control and large-scale health crises.

Public health agencies explore three questions collaboratively to define the requirements for effective public health information systems: How do we do our work now? How should we do our work? How can an information system support our work?

Synopsis of the Work: Fifteen agencies received informatics capacity grants, relatively modest awards (up to $30,000) that allowed them to analyze their business processes related to a specific public health problem and create a plan for future information management needs. Sixteen larger grants (up to $600,000) were for requirements development projects that enabled health departments to define user requirements for information systems focused on chronic disease prevention and control or public health preparedness.

A follow-up RWJF grant allowed the Public Health Informatics Institute to help prepare public health agencies to make effective use of the growing volume of electronic health data submitted by providers. The “meaningful use” provisions of federal legislation passed in 2009 increased Medicare and Medicaid payments to providers who adopt electronic health records and generate specified data.

Key Results: Thirty-one state and local public health agencies throughout the country improved their overall performance as well as their information system capacity by applying the Collaborative Requirements Development Methodology (CRDM), a quality improvement approach adapted from industry by the Public Health Informatics Institute.

The Public Health Informatics Institute and an evaluation team from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago reported that:

  • Two workgroups identified essential public health business processes, 10 for preparedness and 11 for chronic diseases and developed requirements for a subset of those processes.
  • Most grantee agencies reported that Common Ground had increased their understanding of business-process analysis and almost all said it had improved processes within their health departments.
  • The preparedness team published an article in the American Journal of Public Health describing the preparedness framework: “The Common Ground Preparedness Framework: A Comprehensive Description of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.”

Under the follow-up grant, the institute worked with partners to define requirements for an electronic disease surveillance system, and published them in Redesigning Public Health Surveillance in an eHealth World.