This year’s Public Health Informatics Conference, “a forum for new and seasoned public health, healthcare, and information technology professionals,” was by all measures a great success, but how well were the stated objectives addressed?
Before the conference, I shared those objectives with four attendees, asked them for their expectations, and posted a selection of their feedback. Now that the conference is behind us, it’s time to hear their takeaways.
OBJECTIVE #1: Identify the current state of public health informatics capabilities and capacities at the federal, state, and local level.
- “There was a lot of local-level and state-level focus,” said Michelle Barber, interoperability director, Oregon Public Health Division. “I connected with a lot of state colleagues at some of the breakout sessions, and learned more about what was happening at the federal level.”
- “I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the presentations,” said Bryant Karras, MD, chief public health informatics officer, Washington Department of Health, “including the keynotes and the educational sessions. But I was particularly happy with how we were able to witness, in the interoperability showcase, public health’s readiness to do e-case reporting. That was great. Additionally, I heard from a couple of people, from the federal level, questions like, ‘Why aren't there enough graduates coming out of academic programs with these capabilities that we need?’ That was telling.”
- Kim Peifer, applied public health informatics fellow, Washington State Department of Health, said, “There was some discussion about how to effectively build programs and make sure the courses aligned with the needs of the workforce. I think that was a real gap that was identified.”
OBJECTIVE #2: Describe the best practices and core informatics competencies to improve the public health informatics workforce.
- “The interoperability showcase—in which you had demonstrations of what some of the vendors are turning out, how they were integrating with Orion Rhapsody in the middle and generating output for different surveillance systems—was fantastic,” said Barber. “It was mentioned a lot, so I think we're all very excited about what the future holds. We're also a little bit nervous about the influx of information that we're probably going to get in the next couple of years, and how we're going to navigate it all. I think that our trepidation is really about the volume. For those of us who have been working on electronic laboratory reporting for a while, we know that most providers are generating case reports based on laboratory findings. So I think there's a fear that there will be a fair amount of duplicative reporting. How are we going to link those reports up with the electronic laboratory reports that usually precede them, but with much less information? It's going to be a huge integration lift for state health records.”
OBJECTIVE #3: Apply innovative use cases of public health and clinical data to improve health outcomes.
- “I think that we're still waiting to see implementation,” said Barber. “There was a lot of theory, a lot of planning, a lot of discussion about how health will be improved, or certainly how our ability to respond in a timely fashion will be improved. But that sort of real-world applicability—we're just not there yet. But there was a lot of conversation about it, a lot of brainstorming. One comment that I heard from some colleagues was that this conference was so heavily focused on electronic case reporting that applications like immunization information systems took a back seat. I did attend one session, delivered by folks that are, right now, connecting with providers in their clinical studies and providing clinical decision support. And so there was a little bit of conversation about that and improving the information exchange between systems. But it didn't feel like that was the focus. This felt like a forward-leaning meeting, which is good, but there wasn't a lot of talk about ‘This is how it's happening right now, today, in health departments across the country.’ It was more like ‘This is how it's happening right now, today, in Houston, and isn't that great? We should all aspire to be like Houston!’ That kind of thing. So, it was good, but it was more aspirational than applied.”
- “I was impressed by what was pulled together,” said Peifer. “One of the things that I thought was really cool to see was the use of FHIR, which I wish I knew a lot more about. It was really good to learn about it and see some use cases applied.”
- “Not to self-promote,” said Karras, “but our drug systems director got a lot of interest in what we're doing with prescription-drug-monitoring programs and our opiates registry as a population-level intervention to combat the opiate epidemic. I was happy to see a lot of states interested in replicating that back home.”
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.
- “There were a lot of conversations, again, about implementing electronic case reporting, but also still a lot of talk about meaningful use and the implications of the way state and local public health is currently funded and structured, and what the feds can do to facilitate meaningful use activities at the state and local level,” said Barber. “There were a lot of policy conversations, and in fact, there were policy conversations that happened at the close of the meeting that several attendees were able to stay and continue exploring in an independent group.”
OBJECTIVE #5: Demonstrate best practices for public health leadership seeking to incorporate informatics into their agency’s strategy.
- “The one thing that everyone agreed on was this: having leadership buy-in,” said Peifer. “I think that was a really strong common thread. Beyond that, I think that the origination of interest was often from different places—sometimes from IT, sometimes from a specific program area. But leadership buy-in definitely seemed to be the common thread.”
- Added Karras, “I think that's critical. I think that's where we've made more progress in the last two years—with leadership support—than we have in the whole previous decade. It makes a powerful difference.”
To those who presented at this year’s conference: well done! And thank you Michelle, Bryant, and Kim for your expectations and feedback. I’m looking forward to anticipating/reviewing another conference with all of you soon.
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