After I saw that the planning committee for this year’s Public Health Informatics Conference, “a forum for new and seasoned public health, healthcare, and information technology professionals,” posted their five objectives for the event, I shared those objectives with four of the most knowledgeable attendees I know and asked them for their expectations. Here’s a selection of their feedback.

OBJECTIVE #1: Identify the current state of public health informatics capabilities and capacities at the federal, state and local level.

  • “I’m excited to hear answers to questions like, ‘How do we share these resources?’, ‘How do we build on what we've already got?’, ‘How do we use a piece of technology in a meaningful way?’, and ‘How do we understand the data that are coming in as well as the data that are going out?’” said Michelle Barber, interoperability director, Oregon Public Health Division. “That’s important, because we’ve got these programs that are coming up now, and we’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh! Somebody wants to send me data. What do I do with it? How do I get it? Where do I put it?’ Everybody's trying to build that capacity, and they’re not sure about who can help them do that and what kind of tools they’ll need to use. We're sort of on the cusp, I think, of more and more program-level people investing in the idea of informatics. But further, at an agency level, we’re going to have to answer this question: ‘How do we hire people that can help us do public health informatics well?’”
  • Bryant Karras, MD, chief public health informatics officer, Washington Department of Health (and a conference-planning committee member), said, “Two years ago, we didn't see anything about e-case reporting at the conference, but this year I expect it to be a hot topic of discussion. I think in terms of federal, state, and local capabilities, we'll hear a lot in the presentations from our state peers about lessons learned. Orion Health has volunteered to be part of the interoperability showcase, so I'm looking forward to showcasing some of the transformation work we've done for meaningful use measures with their engine.”

OBJECTIVE #2: Describe the best practices and core informatics competencies to improve the public health informatics workforce.

  • “I’d like to hear how we might go about developing specific skills,” said Barber. “For example, an informatician needs to be able to sit down with, say, an epidemiologist, and ask, ‘What's the question you're asking of the data? Are you saying that you want all of the suspected cases, or all of the confirmed cases? Does there need to be a laboratory confirmation? Do we need to link those two things together?’ Those skill sets aren’t so common today, and that needs to be fixed.”

OBJECTIVE #3: Apply innovative use cases of public health and clinical data to improve health outcomes.

  • “I expect to hear use cases that describe innovative strategies for linking two types of unrelated data systems,” said Barber. “For example, immunization registries can serve as a pseudo-clinical repository. So one could feasibly use up-to-date information in an immunization registry to help track down kids who have missed their hearing screenings and ensure that their providers don’t administer any new shots before they’re certain the kid won’t have an adverse reaction. That’s the kind of story I’d love to hear.”
  • “I want to hear about business intelligence applications,” said Karras, “and innovative analytics approaches that can be used to combine data sets, or transform data sets, to make population-level decisions. The focus for the last several years has been on getting data into the agency more efficiently, and now we’ve reached a time when we need to showcase that we can transform that data and disseminate it for decision-making.”

OBJECTIVE #4: Identify opportunities to engage with national stakeholders on federal guidance and policy issues that will impact the future of state and local public health informatics.

  • Said Barber, “I expect that there will be several workgroups that will be discussed. One will be about case reporting. There will be conversations about standards. There will be conversations about funding. I think funding is always an issue, again, because we get most of our money from the feds. I think that that will be something that we'll be talking about a lot. I think we'll be talking a lot about how our federal partners can facilitate user opportunities like the one we've established with the public health Rhapsody user group.”
  • I would like to hear how the progression of the relationship between federal and state is expected to go,” said Peifer. “What type of support will there be federally, and how should the state build out that infrastructure?”

OBJECTIVE #5: Demonstrate best practices for public health leadership seeking to incorporate informatics into their agency’s strategy.

  • Said Karras, “We’re going to share our roadmap at the conference, and I hope to see other states pick up that model as a best practice and develop an informatics roadmap of their own. The more states that are following this path, the easier the path will be to forge. The enterprise adoption of systems, rather than the siloed nature that we've seen in previous eras, is critical for us to succeed. And an interoperable engine to connect our disparate systems is the key to making that a reality.”
  • One of the things that's so great about this conference is that we come together and we share resources,” said Barber. “We talk about what works and what isn't working. Washington State is wrapping up an informatics roadmap that will help direct the course of their informatics activities over the next several years, and I’m excited to see more about that. Many states are taking on informatics self-assessment. I think that there’s going to be a lot of that type of sharing at this event.” 
  • “I just hope to witness evidence that public health leadership sees how important informatics is,” said Kushner. “Washington's done a lot of work in the last year to implement an innovative, robust informatics approach. And going forward for the next two to five years, I think informatics will be a critical component to all businesses, especially public health.”

To those presenting at this year’s conference, take note: you have your work cut out for you! I’ll reconvene with Michelle, Bryant, Kim, and Travis and write a post-conference recap in September.


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