Making the Case for Public Health Informatics

Written with guest blogger Matt Roberts, Informatics Project Manager

Inadequate information management leads to incomplete decision-making. Public health and healthcare decision-makers’ eyes routinely glaze over once information technology is mentioned. Return on investment is difficult to pinpoint, and millions of dollars appear to fall into IT black holes as the proposed product often arrives behind schedule, over budget, or under-delivering on performance.

Investing in IT and developing IT skill among senior executives should become the norm. Leaders should not ask whether IT pays off; rather they should ask which IT solutions should be deployed when and where. We envision a future data-rich environment where data systems will combine with the domains of predictive analytics, machine learning, wearable devices, mobile phone apps and related technologies to transform the type of work we do and the type of people we hire.

To illustrate the critical role of information management, consider public health operations—a very data-intensive field. In public health emergencies, data feeds make or break a response. When distributing X emergency supplies, do you ship 50 pallets or 500? That depends on what data you’ve received about the event. But data serves the public health leader beyond crises of course. Whether you’re preventing obesity or controlling salmonella, one needs to know where the disease is and how it is impacting the population. Data mining is a particularly useful tool for identifying clusters of diseases and grouping based upon other features such as demographics and geography.

Those folks evaluating the data have an important role for a couple of reasons. The first pertains to data-driven decision making. Information management systems are necessary tools to support the business enterprise, allowing personnel across the organization to make important decisions to conduct their work. This is as true for paper-based systems as it is for electronic databases. Computers simply make the system considerably more efficient.

OK, so what do I do now? Where do I go from here? We would like to suggest some basic steps you can take to help overhaul your operations from a quality improvement perspective.

  1. Analyze your business processes

Step a. Conduct system assessments. Have a smart person write up an analysis of the current system, its components and methods, and the pros and cons. No smart person around to do it? Write up the system from a high level overview and simply write a few pages describing the problem, not so much what you think the solution should be.

Step b. Map out the current process and then draft a proposed new system. Flowchart software is not necessary here but is helpful. Dry erase boards work fine too. There are lots of books available on improving business processes and they are cheap but good investments.

Step c. Write with as much detail as possible the workflows and steps that connect and make the current process work. Also begin writing up what you’d like the new system to have. You need to detail these business requirements. Test out these new ideas with the right stakeholders to make sure you’ve got it covered and are heading in the right direction.

Step d. Hire IT genius to overhaul and develop the new system. Can’t afford one? You can possibly learn some on your own but it’s much smarter to strategically invest in the IT genius, as you likely have multiple systems to address. Identify your software “super users” as these folks are great candidates that can make the switch from program person to informatician. Can they write computer code and build databases? Even better.

  1. Generate executive buy-in and leadership/champion. This work will generate some buzz and interest, but also fear of the unknown. You will need people from across all levels of the organization to help be “first followers” and help support the movement. If your systems are in dire straits, finding someone shouldn’t be too hard.
  2. Read Evolution of Public Health Systems: Enterprise-wide Approaches by Noam Artz and HLN Consulting for the Utah Department of Health. This is an excellent whitepaper that reviews some key factors that have led to where we are today and why, and also introduces some concepts that can be used going forward. As you begin to master the technology piece you will need an enterprise plan that helps bring it all together. This will become increasingly important and necessary, as you want to avoid system proliferation (very costly).

One of the hardest parts of all of this is retaining talented staff, a national problem to which solutions are still developing. Recruit talented and creative thinkers and operators where possible to help inject new thinking and technologies to solve existing problems. Be prepared to carry out substantial change management strategies along the way. It will be exciting to see new policy, systems, and environmental strategies emerge as a result.

Jay Bhatt is is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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