Category Archives: Public Health Informatics

Aug 24 2011

Putting the "Public" Back in Public Health: Social Media in Local Health Departments

This week’s Public Health Informatics Conference has focused on using technology to make connections. Social media is all about connections, and has allowed public health departments to not only connect with their communities but also to make their community's voices heard, bucking the trend of health departments using social media without really engaging. Larimer County Colorado is allowing all sectors to contribute to an open pandemic flu planning wiki, while the Boston Public Health Commission recruited teens to communicate to each other about sexually transmitted infections, as in the video above.

Collaborating for Preparedness on a Flu Pandemic Wiki

Joseph Schreurs of the Larimer County Colorado Department of Health reported on the county's use of collaborative wikis to foster collaboration around preparedness planning. Wikis are interactive, collaborative web sites to help plan and share information dynamically. Shreurs noted that social media has a history in facilitating communication around natural disasters, where communities are overwhelmed, the infrastructure is impacted, and many different agencies want to help and provide information. Disaster planning can work better if groups have one place where they can talk and plan – and, importantly, leverage each others’ knowledge.

“The better we plan as a group, the better prepared we are overall,” said Schreurs.

Larimer County’s flu planning wiki brought together all sectors that would be impacted by a flu pandemic, from local colleges to city officials to private businesses and employers, where anyone could contribute and each group could build upon knowledge provided by another.

One way the group learned from each other was in discovering what would happen to the network infrastructure if everyone was told to work from home in the event of a pandemic – the network would shut down. Knowing that the network would not have the capacity for this scenario helped them to better plan together. Benefits of wikis include low cost, ease of use, and version control to alleviate fear of rogue editors (any changes can easily be undone), said Schreurs. He suggested plenty of staff training, resources for monitoring, setting information management policies, and planning for a sustainable presence to make similar collaborative spaces successful.

Letting Teens Tell the Story of STI Prevention

Ann Scales, director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission, took social media collaboration to the extreme – when they learned teens would prefer to get messages on sexually transmitted infections from their peers, they temporarily ceded control of their Facebook page to the voices of teens themselves. The Commission first hosted a YouTube contest for teens to develop public service announcements on STIs, knowing videos direct from teens would resonate better with the audience. They then recruited the creators of the winning video (pictured above) to provide live Facebook status updates on the Boston sex ed Facebook page. In the first year of the program, there was a marked decline in Chlamydia rates among the target population.

“What we quickly leaned was that we had to get out of the way and let them tell the story to each other,” said Scales.

Tips for Using Social Media Well

Nina Jolani, program assistant for the Public Health Informatics program at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, shared some overall advice for state health departments looking to build a social media presence:

  • Set clear goals
  • Select the proper channel (based on goals, not what’s trendy)
  • Get key players involved (CIOs, IT and program staff)
  • Develop a social media policy and make it public
  • Evaluate return on investment
  • Capture and share lessons and results with local health department leadership

Visit NACCHO’s Toolbox for more social media resources.

Julia Gunn, R.N., M.P.H., Director of the Communicable Disease Control Division of the Boston Public Health Commission and moderator of this session, closed with a challenge: “Let’s use social media to put the ‘public’ back in public health!”

Aug 23 2011

Health Systems Working Together: "Where Interoperability Gets Real"

This week the Public Health Informatics Conference 2011 in Atlanta, GA focuses on a theme of "Engaging, Empowering and Evolving... Together" and in large part, "together" means that different systems need to be "interoperable," or to work together. This is no small feat when different standards and architectures proliferate. The conference features a Public Health Informatics Interoperability Showcase(TM) to demonstrate how different groups have made the concept of interoperability come alive. The Showcase includes public health-focused clinical scenarios enabled by the standards-based Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise framework, according to conference materials.

Melvin Crum, a computer scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented one such interoperable system that integrates food safety alerts from federal, state and local levels to provide tailored, relevant and streamlined alerts to providers at the point of care, through electronic medical records. Providers now get so many alerts Crum said, that there is a real threat of alert fatigue on a time-strapped physician.

The CDC system aggregates all of the different alerts them in one place, and drives one streamlined, tailored alert at the point of care. These alerts are tailored based on the patient's symptoms, chief complaint and demographics, and the alert is packaged with guidance on treatment and prevention. CDC also links the data to local health department managers for surveillance tracking. This is just one way to link multiple different HIT systems, and in doing so make the data more meaningful.

>> Continue to follow NewPublicHealth coverage of the Public Health Informatics 2011 conference here.

Aug 23 2011

Connecting Silos � From Food Stamps to Free Check-ups

How do you meet the needs of a teenager who’s been suspended from school, has suicidal tendencies and has a mother with drug problems? How about a non-English speaking woman with tuberculosis, preschool-aged children, unstable housing and potential domestic violence issues? Or a homeless man with diabetes? In most cases, the social services that address needs like this – public housing, food stamps, temporary cash assistance – are silo-ed from each other and from health and public health services by funding streams, staff divisions and a lack of communication. Efforts to make health and human services work together take a whole-person approach to delivering care – and it takes a village.

The Public Health Informatics 2011 Conference included a session on how local health departments are working to advance the continuum of care by connecting public health, health care and social services. Social services provide basic needs – housing, affordable healthy food – that have a big impact on health, yet these systems often don't work together to support the end user. NewPublicHealth is on the ground with Public Health Informatics conference coverage this week .

Getting Health and Social Services Systems to “Talk” to Each Other

Daniel Stein, Stewards of Change cofounder, talked about the challenges of getting human services, health care and public health to “talk” to one another when they’re spread out across different systems, programs and agencies that all have different architectures, funding streams and approaches to problems.

Interoperability is the key, said Stein. What’s interoperability? Stein said just think of Expedia or Travelocity. These sites represent interoperability in action – pulling from varied systems with different databases and architectures, finding common terminologies to integrate them, and offering a single, usable interface where all of the information can be used at once.

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Aug 22 2011

Public Health Informatics Conference 2011 Kicks Off: What Can We Do With Technology?


Today the Public Health Informatics Conference 2011, co-sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), kicks off in Atlanta, GA. NewPublicHealth will be on the ground with live conference coverage. This morning the opening plenary session featured an energized, inspiring group of speakers, who emphasized that collaboration – with support from (but not driven by) health information technology – is the key to moving public health forward.

Seth Foldy, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Public Health Informatics and Technology Program Office at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), urged the crowd to think first about, “what exactly are we trying to do with our technology – instead of what is the coolest technology we can do it with?”

Dr. Foldy acknowledged the challenges public health informatics is up against, including a shrinking and aging workforce that must tackle a bigger job than ever before. "We’ll need to do more with less – in our ability to train, to reach the public with direct services, and deliver the environmental services needed to protect the public from disease," said Dr. Foldy.

Despite the challenges, the 2011 conference comes at a time when opportunity is great. The opportunities Dr. Foldy espoused are to enable a far more close, real-time relationship (driven by data and decision support) between public health and clinical care. Dr. Foldy said, "We can create a health system that for the first time is incentivized by preventing disease and injury rather than just treating it."

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Aug 17 2011

The Power of Health IT for Public Health: A NewPublicHealth Q&A With Farzad Mostashari

file Farzad Mostashari, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology

In the summer of 2011, nearly 800 public health and informatics professionals from across the country convened in Atlanta for the Public Health Informatics 2011 conference. 

Around the conference, NewPublicHealth spoke with Farzad Mostashari, M.D., S.c.M., Director of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to get his perspective on how health information technology can impact public health, and how the public health informatics field is evolving.

NewPublicHealth: The Public Health Informatics Conference is coming up this month. For those who aren't familiar with the field, what exactly is public health informatics?

Dr. Mostashari: I think that I’m a little bit of a student of public health informatics myself, and an avid follower. In the early days it was about building better systems – disease surveillance and outbreak detection systems. The second phase was building the connection between those systems and clinical systems, and using clinical information systems as primary data sources for public health. The third stage is about how public health informatics systems can embed within them a public health consciousness. I think about having a Tom Frieden [Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] on the left shoulder of every physician to help inform clinical decisions from a public health perspective, as enabled by health information technology.

NPH: What is the role of the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) in advancing public health informatics?

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