What Is Public Health Informatics and How Is It Used?
May 11, 2022
Public health officials at agencies like the CDC utilize public health informatics—information systems created to collect, analyze, and display data—to inform their decisions regarding public health interventions.
Public health informatics (PHI) is the collection of data through public health information systems; this data is then analyzed and presented in a form that public health officials can understand so they can make data-driven decisions and mount interventions regarding public health. PHI is intertwined with epidemiology, the study of the patterns and causes of health events in specific populations—and is used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations.
A recent—and still very relevant—example of the use of public health informatics in population health is the way Louisiana Department of Health officials created a system to monitor the presence of COVID-19 in a community’s wastewater. This type of public health surveillance allows local public health agencies to utilize data gathered through wastewater testing sites to predict outbreaks as much as a week in advance. It allows them to implement preparedness measures that can help mitigate, rather than just respond to, a spike in infections. In addition, the Louisiana Department of Health has begun using this method in a pilot program to identify areas with high levels of opioid use, enabling the state to focus prevention and treatment efforts in affected neighborhoods (this system has the potential to be used for other communicable diseases, too).
The COVID-19 wastewater testing program offers an excellent example of how public health informatics works. First, public health informaticians design a system to address a public health issue. Then, the informatics professionals collect, analyze, and report on the data from disease reporting and surveillance systems. Finally, public health officials implement a response based on the PHI findings, and the public health informaticians refine and apply the process to other relevant public health issues and events.
What is public health informatics and how is it used?
According to the Public Health Informatics Institute, public health informatics combines computer science, sociology, information science, information technology, and behavioral sciences to improve community health. Many professionals engage in building and maintaining these reliable practical and research information systems, including web designers, programmers, database administrators, and security specialists.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines the inner machinations of public health informatics, identifying the five steps informaticians (alongside other professionals) use to create a sound public health information system. They are:
Vision and systematic planning
During this initial stage, informaticists envision solutions, opportunities, and applications of their information technology (hardware, software, and communication tech) concerning public health.
Health data standards and integration
In this step, public health informatics professionals define and design their data standards and transformation (defining what to collect, how to represent what is collected, and how to encode data for transmission), and health domain integration (how to organize health improvement, health protection, and health services). They also design and implement databases, tables, and other data organization tools.
Data privacy and security
Data security is essential, particularly when handling patients’ confidential electronic health records and other medical data. Public health informaticians must be well-versed in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, and establish/enforce privacy best practices and security measures throughout the process.
Systems design and implementation
The public health informaticists define, design, and implement methods for public health functions, data elements, data flow, case definitions, and message mapping.
Visualization, analysis, and reporting of health data
Finally, the informaticians package, visualize, and report on the data collected in a meaningful manner so that public health officials can act on it.
Where else is health informatics used?
According to the paper "A review of the role of public health informatics in healthcare" by Hassan A. Aziz PhD, public health informatics isn't solely a way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Officials can use it to research and combat environmental catastrophes and bioterrorism threats. For instance, public health informaticians can utilize a geographic information system (GIS) for data collection and to analyze and display geographically referenced public health data, which can reveal relevant trends and patterns.
What skills do you need to be a public health informaticist?
To work in public health informatics, you need an understanding of the healthcare system—including relevant healthcare law—and a computer science or data science background (the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) is a good resource for learning more about this field). Earning a master’s degree in health informatics can help prepare you for a successful career in this field. The University of Pittsburgh offers three specialization tracks: Data Science, General Health Informatics, and Health Care Supervision and Management.
Career paths in public health informatics (and what they pay)
According to a 2019 salary survey by the American Health Information Management Association, the average public health information management professional earns $74,020 annually. Of course, factors like education, experience, and location can affect your earnings.
Several top-paying informatics roles include:
- Chief Medical Information Officer (average salary: $137,584)
- Health Information Technology Project Manager (average salary: $109,736)
- EHR Implementation Manager (average salary: $107,633)
- Health Informatics Consultant (average salary: $103,399)
- Clinical Informatics Analyst (average salary: $89,398)
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