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Informatics synthesizes public health information

When something like the West Nile Virus outbreak occurs, most people take for granted the information that is readily availablegeographic areas involved, ages of the afflicted, severity of the illness, common symptoms among the victims and strategies for prevention.

What isn't apparent on the surface is that much of this information is collected using current technology through a process called informatics. What also is not obvious is that people rarely receive all of the available information, because not every agency recording such information has made it into the technological age.

"Informatics enables us to collect information, process that information, and feed it back to relevant public health and medical organizations, to clinicians, or to the public," says Victor Strecher, associate director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center's Prevention and Control Program and professor in the School of Public Health.

A key feature of informatics is the ability to synthesize information to create a unique message, Strecher says. The message created can be used in many ways, from formulating a plan to help an individual quit smoking to tracking disease outbreaks.

"Public Health Informaticsthe systematic application of computer and information science and technology to public health practice, research and learningis key to effective use of information technology in public health," Bill Yarnoff, senior advisor, National Health Information Infrastructure at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said at a recent informatics conference held at U-M. This type of informatics concentrates on monitoring outbreaks, such as West Nile Virus, and tracking and collecting information on the disease and its patterns, Strecher said.

The Oct. 31 conference was targeted toward governmental agencies, public health workers, health care providers and others who use data in making health care decisions impacting their communities. Many of the sessions were hands-on, offering participants the chance to learn how to build databases and informatics systems.

The concept of informatics is nearly a quarter-century old but has come of age primarily in the past decade. Though a valuable tool in public health, Yarnoff says it has encountered some obstacles. With delays of up to two weeks in the availability of public health data and only 15­20 percent of cases actually reported, there are concerns about whether the public is getting a complete picture of a given public health issue. Additionally, fewer than half of local health departments have high-speed continuous Internet connections, Yarnoff says. Other relevant data such as guidelines, contacts and training materials are not easily accessible.

Yarnoff says that in order to overcome these problems, established case definitions, a workforce skilled in informatics and collaboration of many organizations are necessary. This will lead to rapid feedback for health care providers and early detection of public health problems.

When such obstacles are overcome, he says, they will pave the way for the development of a National Health Information Infrastructure that will allow communities to access health care information whenever and wherever it is needed, thus allowing for the latest guidelines and research to be applied to patient care, Yarnoff says.

In addition to their use in public health, there are other types of informatics, including consumer health informatics, which concentrates on patients and the general population; bioinformatics, which concentrates on the sharing of the Human Genome and biological information; and medical informatics, which concentrates on issues related to electronic medical records and the exchange of medically relevant data.

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