A year and a half ago, most people could be forgiven for not understanding the importance of data analysis in public health. But now, two summers into a global pandemic that we are just beginning to get a handle on, the role of data in public health has never been more at the forefront of public discourse. Even though the term “public health informatics” is still probably meaningless to most people, every day we hear about daily new cases, positivity rates, basic reproduction rates, infection fatality rates, etc., we are benefiting from this once esoteric field.

However, public health informatics and timely data analysis are essential for more than just managing historic global pandemics. Truly robust public health initiatives require the ability to accurately collect and analyze up-to-date data from all over the world. Without the help of medical-grade computing technology like medical panel PCs and rugged medical tablets, such data collection initiatives would be nearly impossible.

What is Public Health Informatics

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Public health informatics is the systematic application of information, computer science, and technology to public health practice, research, and learning.” It’s a field that rests at the intersection of data analysis, information technology, and public health. It’s all about collecting, analyzing, visualizing, and acting upon large amounts of public health data on both a regional, state, and national level to track public health trends over time. 

As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, public health informatics is crucial for responding to disease outbreaks. It is also an essential part of the response to other natural disasters, as well as events like bioterrorism attacks. Additionally, it’s how we track overall health trends like life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity rates, cancer rates, and other vital measures of general public health.

A person whose job is to coordinate public health informatics efforts is an informatician. Informaticians are the architects of any Public Health Information system. According to Nabil Issa, Associate Director of Informatics at the CDC, an informatician “envisions and defines the applicability of IT, information science, computer science, and technology to solving public health problems.” 

An Informatitician must have one foot in public health and one in IT. Like an architect, they do not do all the work themselves. Instead, they lead a team that involves doctors, programmers, database administrators, network administrators, security specialists, web designers, and more in creating public health information systems.

The Public Health Approach

Generally, public health agencies use a systematic approach to tackling public health issues. According to the CDC, this approach has five key steps:

  1. Surveillance
    1. Determining the nature and scope of the problem
  2. Risk factor identification
    1. Determining the cause of the problem
  3. Intervention Evaluation
    1. Testing and evaluating possible solutions to see what is most effective
  4. Implementation
    1. The on the groundwork of administering the solution to those who need it
  5. Assess and Repeat
    1. Reevaluating to make sure the solution is working as hoped

Medical Computers and their Role in Disease Surveillance

Surveillance involves the collection and analysis of vast amounts of public health data. On-the-ground healthcare professionals must first collect this data at local clinics and hospitals, report it to the local city/county/regional public health agency. The local agency then sends that data to state-level agencies, which then send it to national agencies. A herculean task in and of itself, surveillance is just the beginning of public health efforts. Without this crucial work, we would be flying blind when it comes to public health. 

Informaticians are integral to designing the data collection framework to make sure healthcare data is secure and consistent across many disparate facilities and agencies. In the past, such data collection efforts happened entirely on paper. Healthcare professionals would manually fill out the paperwork with the relevant data, mail or fax it to the local public health agency, send a copy to the next agency, and store it in their own facilities. 

Whether you are dealing with a small localized disease outbreak or a global pandemic like COVID-19, you need as close to accurate real-time data as is possible to effectively mitigate the spread of whatever contagion is causing the outbreak. Unfortunately, the old paper-based method data collection system just isn’t going to cut it. Not only is it laborious and time-consuming, but it is also highly prone to human error. At every step of the way, a human can transpose a figure, misread someone’s handwriting, miss decimals, or mix up units. 

Now, thanks to advancements in computing technology, data collection can happen digitally. Today, healthcare professionals can collect data electronically using a medical cart computer or a medical tablet PC and transmit that information to their local public health agency over the internet.  The local public health agency can take that data, store it on their own servers, and digitally transmit it to state and national public health agencies. 

Not only that, but in many cases, doctors don’t even have to type in the relevant data manually. Since many medical devices are now computerized, they can directly link to whatever medical grade computing device the clinician is using. Software on the computer or tablet can take the data and automatically add it to the necessary digital forms. And thanks to the advancements in internet connectivity speeds, the process can happen as quickly as bandwidth will allow, greatly reducing the time it takes to analyze and act upon critical public health data in the event of a crisis.

Final Thoughts

Public health informatics is absolutely integral to any public health efforts. Whether it’s the fight against chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer, the seasonal outbreaks of the cold and flu, or massive society altering global pandemics like COVID-19, decision-makers across the healthcare field must have access to reliable data to guide them. Thanks to medical grade tablets and computers, we can collect, transmit, and analyze this data faster and more accurately than ever. 

If you want to learn more about how medical grade computing technology can help your public health efforts at your hospital, clinic, or public health agency, contact the experts at Cybernet today!