Using Health Informatics to Build Bridges in Public Health

Using Health Informatics to Build Bridges in Public Health
A new model to advance collaborative programs and expand research capacity.

When applied to public health, health informatics can be used to enable effective monitoring and surveillance, identify risk factors, and improve timely delivery of quality data. Informatics ensures that the right technologies are used to communicate across siloed public health areas, creating interoperable information pathways. At the highest level, public health informatics leads to better health of individuals and communities by empowering disease intervention, management and prevention.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) has formed a new Center for Improving the Public’s Health Using Informatics (CIPHI). The center, a collaboration between the Departments of Biomedical Informatics and Health Policy, is to be co-directed by Michael Matheny, M.D., associate professor of biomedical informatics, biostatistics and medicine and Melissa McPheeters, Ph.D., research professor in health policy and biomedical informatics.

“The center will focus on providing a bridge between public health and health care to mutually develop and test critical informatics capacity for improving population health,” said Matheny. “We will do this through innovative projects and research to test best practices, as well as by filling a tremendous need for capacity in the public health informatics workforce.”

Working Closely with Partners

CIPHI will coordinate with state and national public health agencies to offer services and expertise and to source available data. In addition to health care data, the center will evaluate geographical and environmental markers and use the social determinants of health to help create a picture of a region’s total health. “We wanted to create a space where all these data could be brought together,” said McPheeters.

McPheeters recently returned to Vanderbilt after serving three years as an assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Health. There, she built an informatics program that included multi-system interoperability, advanced analytics and data governance, with a particular emphasis on using advanced analytics to counter the opioid epidemic. She previously led the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center.

“Working at a state agency has given me a birds-eye view of the opportunities that are out there,” McPheeters said. “Most states don’t have departments of informatics; academic health centers have a tremendous opportunity to help bridge the gap and support our public health partners.”

“We have a tremendous opportunity to help bridge the gap and support our public health partners.”

The Role of Data Analytics

Another goal of CIPHI is to develop key informatics and analytics capacity and to develop new research programs. Matheny is a medical informatician at VUMC and at Tennessee Valley Healthcare System Veterans Administration hospitals. His research is focused on data mining and population health analytics, risk prediction modeling, natural language processing, and post-marketing medical product surveillance.

“Risk modeling and surveillance are key components of public health informatics,” Matheny said. “With the explosion of data science and increasing access to public and private data sources, we can innovate with new methods and frameworks to improve methods and processes in areas of analytics, reportable conditions, and medical product surveillance, and to work with operational partners to disseminate these developments.”

Educating Public Health Informatics Professionals

The center also aims to expand critically needed capacity in graduate education in public health informatics and to expand research faculty capacity, particularly in the areas of public health reporting and data exchange, integration and use of evolving data systems, real-time predictive analytics, population surveillance and risk-adjustment and medical product surveillance.

“Right now, what happens in public health is that people get educated on the job,” said McPheeters. “They are well trained in epidemiology, but often need to learn the technical skills involved in informatics to best serve their departments. Conversely, public health IT professionals may need additional training in the public health and healthcare aspects of data acquisition and use.”

Said Matheny, “Our interest is in developing data science skills. Hopefully, we can evolve our current lecture and seminar opportunities into a formal public health informatics training program.”