What is Public Health Informatics?

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Public health informatics is a field in which graduates from master’s in public health (MPH) programs usually work on. They are trained to develop, design, and manage health information systems, thereby improving the overall health of the general public. They are highly trained specialists with a very specific focus.

Definition of Public Health Informatics

A lot of people who work in public health informatics have a medical background. They often are more interested in seeing the bigger health care picture, finding solutions that impact not just individual patients, but entire population groups. Degree holders focus on using the world’s most advanced communication and information technologies, thereby ensuring that disadvantaged and underserved populations can also be reached.

According to the American Medical Informatics Association, public health informatics is defined as “the application of informatics in areas of public health, including surveillance, prevention, preparedness, and health promotion. Public health informatics – and the related population informatics – work on information and technology issues from the perspective of groups of individuals.”

The focus is strongly on developing and using interoperable information systems. These systems are used for a range public health functions. These include such things as outbreak management, bio-surveillance, disease prevention, and electronic laboratory reporting. Essentially, the field is charged with improving overall health, delivering better health outcomes, and generally increasing the quality of life for large population groups across the world, using data analytics, information systems, technological tools, devices, and novel technologies.

How Public Health Informatics Can Affect Health Care

The world is becoming increasingly technologically advanced, and this is also seen in public health. New informatics tools are constantly being developed and implemented. These include, for instance, geographic information systems. These are used to improve levels of surveillance, including disease reporting. They can be applied in a variety of sectors, including the Comprehensive Assessment for Tracking Community Health (CATCH). The CATCH is in place to have systematic methods in place that enable better health needs assessments at the grassroots, community level. The system also ensures the right decisions can be made in the right way, focusing on health care policy development, resource allocation, strategy implementation, hypothesis generation, and information dissemination in a range of formats. Put together, these can identify new areas of population health that require further investigation.

Like regular informatics, public health informatics is a new and emerging field. This means that there is a lot of uncertainty about what degree holders can do and how their skills can best be used for. What is known, however, is that these skills are an absolute necessity in today’s technologically advanced world. Over the past few decades, while public health informatics has developed, the field has already made a number of very important accomplishments. Active national surveillance systems are perhaps the most important development because of this, as they are used to identify new public health concerns, as well as report on them. In so doing, better responses are also possible to resolve any of the issues.

While the future is never clear, it is believed that public health informatics will continue to shape the world of health care in a positive way. Graduates with a public health informatics concentration are currently building on existing achievements, and they have already made some significant and major advances in the areas of disaster relief management, emergency responses, managing mental health, managing neglected tropical diseases, and non-communicable disease management. A good example of public health informatics at its best is found in the recent Ebola crisis, which gripped the entire globe but was managed properly, leading to even Sierra Leone now being Ebola free.

The field of public health is in place to improve overall population health outcomes. Public health informatics, as such, is the science of how public health information is managed. This means graduates provide necessary and vital support to those who work specifically on health outcomes, including those who hold master’s in public health degrees, for instance. They work hand in hand with informatics design specialists in order to put systems in place that properly handle the huge amount of data that is produced on a daily basis within public health practice. In so doing, they provide timely, accurate, and relevant information and this, in turn, is used to improve decision making. Ultimately, their work will mean that population health outcomes are improved.

Although the role is very important, the field remains very poorly understood, even within public health. Because of this, it is still quite difficult to actually see the contribution graduates make, and their skills are under-resourced and underutilized. Luckily, this problem is now recognized by the Public Health Informatics Institute. As a result, the Task Force for Global Health is now fully supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they worked together with the FrameWorks Institute in order to start a study into what the current understanding by public health professionals is in terms of the core principles and functions of the science behind public health informatics. Additionally, opportunities to reframe strategies are explored, thereby enabling experts to better communicate in a strategic and consistent manner about what they do and how important that is.

Research and Recommendations

A very important report, ‘Making Public Health Informatics Visible: Communicating an Emerging Field’, was released in 2015. It highlighted the different and vital challenges that public health informatics experts are facing in terms of how they communicate with other professionals, particularly those who influence or work in the broad, overall, public health field. A number of challenges were identified, including the fact that many non-experts do not accept public health informatics as a science. The report also identified that current attitudes towards this field impede it from being properly implemented into public health practices. It further demonstrated that the science is not properly appreciated, thereby stopping the improvements public health informatics could make to overall health outcomes for the wider population. In the conclusion of the report, a number of recommendations are made to help address the current challenges in communication. It also makes suggestions about how future research should be conducted, thereby developing the Core Story of Public Health Informatics, which is fully evidence based.

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