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Top Ten Tech Trends: Making Sense of an Onslaught of Data in Public Health

January 21, 2015
by John DeGaspari
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Finding relevant data at the local level and building bridges to clinical care requires a nuanced approach

Historically, public health has been viewed as something of a poor stepchild when it comes to the billions of dollars in investments that have been aimed at transforming clinical care. Public health funding continues to be an issue, and the capabilities of local public health departments vary widely.

In fact, that is a problem even in the largest urban local health departments, according to a paper in the January issue of the Journal of Public Health Practice. According to a survey of 45 public health leaders in 16 large urban public health departments, timely information and data on chronic disease that are available in smaller geographic units are still difficult to obtain. Technology such as electronic health records (EHRs), claims data and hospital discharge data, was cited as useful data sources, but fewer than half of local health departments polled used systems that collected or disseminated data from EHRs or health information exchange.

The question is: Has the time arrived for public health to benefit from the technological transformations that are benefitting clinical acute care, and what are the barriers that stand in the way of data sharing that will enable a better partnership between public health and clinical care? In interviews, several public health experts give a qualified “yes.”


Brian Lee is chief public health informatics officer, Office of Public Health Scientific Services, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. “New techniques and new technologies will allow us to amplify the work of a single smart epidemiologist or practitioner by allowing him to use tools that didn’t even exist 10 years ago,” he says. Although there will more data, and more timely data, available, the challenge for public health is going to be filtering out the relevant data, and especially making sure that the people who are interested at the local level have the ability to see that it’s relevant.

Brian Lee

Public health departments will increasingly get data from EHRs, and it will be important that various systems that collect data for particular conditions work together, Lee says. He notes that investments are needed in EHRs to ensure that data systems are interoperable to public health, and that actionable public health decisions can be made from that data. He adds that standards are needed that allow for exchange of the right data and the right meaning of that data.

Lee adds that the CDC is developing standardized tools and procedures for rapidly collecting data, using it and tying it back so it is useable at the local, state and federal levels. One example of that effort is the CDC’s BioSense program, part of the national Syndromic Surveillance Program, which is aimed at developing additional analytics capabilities and more capacity to send and receive data as the level of syndromic data increases.

Jeff Engel, M.D., executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists in Atlanta, says the technology infrastructure requires setting up a platform that works within government IT. Security issues, firewall issues, and working with other departments such as public safety face every jurisdiction, he says. He also sees an emerging requirement for what he terms public health informaticians—highly skilled epidemiologists, who can write code and translate the English language into machine language, particularly for reportable conditions.

Brian Castrucci is program director of the de Beaumont Foundation, a Bethesda, Md.-based not-for-profit that “works to transform the practice of public health through strategic and engaged grantmaking,” and has a background as an epidemiologist with local health departments. He says the U.S. has a health system that is purely set up to manage the consequences of disease. Clinical practices have tremendous depth, but that is only half of the equation, he says. In his view, public health workers have the skills to analyze data around the upstream causes of diseases, but there has been a disconnect in that clinicians do not contextualize their information at the community level.

“If we can bring this together, use the multi-billion dollar investment in health IT to bridge the gap between those looking for the consequences of a disease and the causes, we could leverage better partnerships between clinical medicine and public health,” he says. He adds: “We have this Tower of Babel throughout health; we have a lot of information, but it’s in different formats, different EMRs, and in different organizations. We have to harmonize the information for the public health good it can do,” he says.

Brian Castrucci