Public health agencies are on the front line of preventing epidemics. But they also do much more than that in the communities they serve, and their work is being informed by technology that allows information to be collected and analyzed in new ways.
Public health agencies monitor the health of their communities by doing the following:
- Setting priorities based on potential health problems, and developing strategies and policies to address them.
- Identifying and serving specific groups at risk for health problems, ranging from suicide prevention and nutrition to specific diseases
- Promoting healthy behaviors
- Providing disease prevention services, such as immunization
- Tracking and preventing the spread of epidemics
- Handling disaster prevention and recovery
- Protecting against environmental hazards
- Protecting against wide-scale threats, including bioterrorism
- Ensuring access to appropriate and cost-effective care
- Evaluating the effectiveness of available care.1
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To meet these needs, health officials must monitor a broad range of information to assess potential risks and community needs. Public health tracking dates back to 1854, when a British doctor by the name of John Snow tracked cholera deaths in London and traced the outbreak to a single water pump.2
Today, public health officials review disease case reports and other information to identify trends and plan responses. Technology is allowing far more data to be collected from more sources, creating new opportunities to monitor the needs of the community in more effective ways.
Health informatics involves collecting data and applying analytics that can reveal trends quickly enough to prevent epidemics or other negative health situations. Among the community health data that can be collected to identify these trends:1
- Absences from work or school
- Purchases of health-care products, including specific types of over-the-counter and prescription medications
- Symptoms reported to medical providers
- Emergency room admissions
- Lab test orders
- Vital statistics from state and local governments
- Financial data
- Facility data
- Internet searches for symptoms of infectious disease such as the flu
Informatics is allowing public health officials to collect and analyze this data more quickly and efficiently. Emerging data exchange systems will increasingly allow community health officials to share public health information with their counterparts elsewhere in their region so that information about health threats will spread more quickly.
Ultimately, regional health information exchanges could lead to the creation of a comprehensive national public health network. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control created the National Center for Public Health Informatics (NCPHI) to encourage the growth of such networks.2
For the full promise of public health informatics to be realized, data need to be standardized so that they can be exchanged across these networks. Public health officials need to lead the adoption of informatics by doing the following:2
- Developing and using standards
- Managing computer system development and implementation
- Communicating across sectors
- Conducting research
- Developing public health information systems
- Supporting the use of informatics
- Ensuring confidentiality, security, and integrity
- Conducting education and training
The University of Scranton’s online Master of Science in Health Informatics program, which includes coursework on community health for health informatics, is at the cutting edge of this emerging field. The program’s faculty includes top-tier professionals whose firsthand experience in solving complex health-care problems can help you become the health informatics expert your organization needs. Request more information about The University of Scranton’s online MS in Health Informatics or speak with a Program Manager at 866-373-9547.
- Mercado, M. P. (2013). Using informatics to promote community/population health, Retrieved from https://prezi.com/bkjzlyulrv-v/using-informatics-to-promote-communitypopulation-health/
- Kraft, M. R., Androwich, I., Matrian, K. & McGonigle, D. (2015). Using informatics to promote community/population health, (pp. 301-314) In D. McGonigle. & K. Mastrian (Eds). Nursing informatics and the foundation of knowledge. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.