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

Aug 22, 2011, 4:03 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


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."

He also talked of a "revolution around access to data," and urged public health officials to make the effort to leverage the data that's now available to improve the work that they do.

One particularly relevant use of technology to improve collaboration is the new pilot Virtual Conference technology being used for this conference to continue a national, unified public health informatics discussion forum even as resources are strapped.

Kenneth Thorpe, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Department of Health Policy and Management delivered a challenge to attendees to "be bold," especially in taking advantage of opportunities to rebuild the health and prevention system provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Dr. Thorpe said that so far the solutions for reducing health care spending proposed to date haven’t aligned with the major causes of spending. He listed these as the major forces driving the cost increase:

1. Rise in prevalence of largely preventable diseases (accounts for two-thirds of the increase in spending)

2. Rise in cost to treat chronically ill patients (about half of Medicare patients are being treated for at least 5 chronic conditions)

Proposals to decrease spending to date have looked at increasing co-payments, cutting payments to providers, and increasing eligibility age for Medicare – Dr. Thorpe said these solutions can reduce spending but they don’t pull cost out of the system, like a focus on prevention and increased care coordination would.

Dr. Thorpe said the ACA offers a new opportunity to become a more prevention-based system, through the Public Health Prevention Trust Fund. One way to do this is to establish community health teams that can work with and engage community members in prevention to keep them healthy.

Dr. Thorpe said the theme here is connectivity: between public health and treatment system, payment streams, a whole-person orientation that doesn't segment prevention, acute care, and medication management but instead provides connected teams to provide care for a person on all of the fronts and allow higher-quality, lower-cost care.

"If we don’t have a health information technology infrastructure that facilitates the flow of information, allows us to look at the health across communities, and have those metrics available real-time to examine quality of the innovation that’s happening, all of what I’ve talked about will not be as effective," said Dr. Thorpe. "We need to make sure we have the information infrastructure not just on the clinical side, but for prevention as well. These changes would transform our healthcare system. We have the capacity to do this. Be bold and let’s get it done."

Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), expanded on the ways that health data can transform collaboration and the health system through "a rising tide of innovation."

HHS, through the Health Data Initiative, is publishing brand new data, making existing data much more accessible ("just because data is in a book or on a static website doesn’t mean it’s usable"), and making data easier to find (a survey of health IT professionals and "innovators," most didn't even know this kind of data existed).

Park quoted Bill Joy, the former chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, who said, "one of the things you have to remember is no matter who you are, most of the smart people in the world don’t work for you." If you want change to happen, Park said, don’t try to do it yourself – open up the data and the opportunity to innovate.

Park also shared a number of recent developments in the health data world, including the formation of the Health Data Consortium, a public-private partnership between HHS, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Academy Health, NACCHO and others to help the country understand the power of health data and harness these data to make the U.S. a healthier nation.

The final announcement was the latest in a string of health data challenges. Continuing on the theme of connections, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response announced the Lifeline Facebook Challenge encouraging innovators to develop an app that uses Facebook to facilitate communication in the event of an emergency by connecting people to "lifelines." A Lifeline is a friend who will agree to check on you in an emergency, provide you with shelter in the case you need it and post updates about your well-being on your Facebook wall. The idea is to streamline emergency communications systems, bringing some of those communications online and freeing up phone lines to make sure people in an emergency situation can get messages out and responders can get messages in, and to mobilize community resources to provide help from all available sources.

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

>> Follow the Public Health Informatics conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #2011PHI.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.