National Health IT Week: Exploring the Role of Informatics in Local Public Health

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Attendees at the 2016 PHI Conference tour the HIMSS Interoperability Showcase.

From September 26-30, 2016, public and private healthcare organizations will celebrate National Health IT Week by working in partnership to educate industry and policy stakeholders on the value of health information technology (IT) for the U.S. healthcare system.

As a partner in the advancement of health IT, NACCHO is committed to expanding the value of informatics – the applied science of information and computer information systems – for local public health. But as the national voice for local health departments, we recognize that dwindling budgets, staff shortages, and competing priorities have made health informatics seem either intimidating or vastly inaccessible. Still, we believe that there is a role for informatics within every local health department (LHD), and we’re working to help define that role.

To advance our efforts, NACCHO hosted the 2016 Public Health Informatics Conference in late August, convening over 900 attendees in Atlanta, GA to engage in four days of discussions designed to address the science of public health informatics, evolving public health systems, and the nation’s expanding health information technology. The conference provided a forum for exploring the interconnected world of health IT, producing a great deal of insight into how informatics can expand access to care and improve community health.

Expanding Access to Care and Improving Community Health
Thanks to innovations in medicine and technology, people are living longer in the United States. In fact, one in five Americans will be 65 years or older in 2020, meaning the development, implementation, and interoperability of health information systems that improve healthcare delivery is more important than ever. Informatics streamlines healthcare systems to enable clearer communication between providers, expanding access to care and ensuring continuity in care across the lifespan.

Informaticians can transform data into micro-level information (e.g., disease incidence by zip code), which helps LHDs pinpoint where outreach and resources are required. Informatics enables local public health to identify and target interventions to address disparities, which benefits individual and community health and also contributes to the advancement of health equity by ensuring that the provision of healthcare services and support aligns with need.

While informatics systems provide a snapshot of community health today, they can also help forecast what the landscape might look like in the future. Through public health surveillance, LHDs can use existing data and information to predict disease outbreaks or public health emergencies, gain insight into the epidemiology of health issues, and plan interventions more effectively. Thus, how we collect, aggregate, access, and share public health information can have a significant effect on community wellness and population health.

Establishing Informatics Capabilities at the Local Level
Local health departments face a variety of challenges when trying to develop an informatics capability or strengthen their existing capacity to engage in informatics, including: legislative and policy limitations around data-sharing; information silos within the LHD; and most simply, a lack of awareness that informatics activities are happening within the LHD. These challenges produce disparities in the ability of LHDs to collect and process data using informatics, resulting in a hesitation to incorporate the technology into their operations. But as public health becomes a focal consideration across sectors and demand for information grows, LHDs will have to start investing in and implementing health IT to remain valuable providers of community health services.

While your local health department may not have the resources to start investing financially in informatics, you can start having conversations that produce leadership and staff buy-in. In fact, intradepartmental collaboration is an important first step in the establishment of informatics capability within LHDs. Creating a “common language” – one that generates understanding among LHD staff about what informatics is, who would likely use the systems and why, and how health IT can optimize LHD operations – is critical to the integration of informatics into local public health.

Getting involved in National Health IT Week is a great way to spark the conversation and start raising awareness of how health information technology can advance the work your LHD does on a daily basis. During National Health IT Week, consider participating in the following activities:

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  • Get Connected on Social Media. Use the hashtags #IHeartHIT and #NHITWeek to join the conversation and find out how professionals across the nation are bringing together public health and informatics.
  • Attend or Host an Event. Check out a list of the in-person events and virtual webinars happening around the country to celebrate and promote National Health IT Week. Register to participate or submit an event you’re hosting and have it added to the list!
  • Participate in Virtual Advocacy. Sign up to engage in virtual activities that provide Congress and their staff with accurate information about health information technology to help them make effective public policy decisions.

For more insights from the 2016 Public Health Informatics Conference, check out the #2016PHI hashtag on Twitter. For more ideas on how your local health department can promote the importance of health IT in public health, download the National Health IT Week toolkit.

About Kim Rodgers

Kim Rodgers serves as a Communications Specialist at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices, as well as partner tools and resources, in infectious disease and preparedness through NACCHO's communications channels, storytelling, and outreach to various audiences.

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