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December 15, 2015

“Infor-what-ics?”: Communications challenges of an emerging field

Here at PHII, my colleagues and I often discuss the challenge of explaining our jobs—and the terms “public health informatics” or even just “informatics”—to family members who don’t work in public health. But even within the field of public health, defining this concept and its value continues to be a difficult task. Public health practitioners often have different perceptions of what informatics is. Sometimes leadership and HR have trouble defining its role, making it hard to recruit for informatics positions. Because of this challenge, we recently worked with the FrameWorks Institute, with support from CDC's Division of Scientific Education and Professional Development, to assess the views of both experts and public health professionals who are not informatics experts.

Last spring, FrameWorks conducted interviews with both informatics experts and a wide range of public health professionals, and the interesting results are detailed in their report “Making Public Health Informatics Visible: Communicating an Emerging Field.”  While both groups shared some of the same understandings of public health informatics, there are key gaps in understanding. A few that struck me:

  • Experts understand public health informatics as an emerging field. Public health professionals didn’t see it as a field of science or expertise.
  • Experts think of public health informatics in terms of the people who do the work, rather than the systems they design or the standards they develop. Public health professionals think about data, systems and technology, but the people who do this work are absent from their thinking.
  • Experts emphasize the users of information at every stage of data collecting and sharing. Our interviewees didn’t recognize the importance of studying how people interact with data systems or ensuring that those systems can accomplish their goals.
  • However, public health professionals understand that systems should be integrated. They don’t understand all the complexity of what has to happen—such as the design of the systems, creation of standards, consideration of users or technical details. Our communications task will be to explain how public health informatics can overcome complex challenges to integrate information systems.

Questions answered by the FrameWorks report:

  • What are the features of public health informatics that experts want to be able to communicate?
  • How do public health professionals think about public health informatics?
  • What are the primary challenges of communicating about public health informatics?
  • What can communicators do to address these communications challenges and build better understanding of and support for public health informatics?

The report gives us a detailed understanding of what we’re up against when communicating about informatics. We know we need to generate an understanding of informatics as a scientific field of practice and expertise, and we must help make the role of informatics professionals more visible. We also need to help all public health professionals understand their critical role in making information systems work more effectively.

In the next few months, with the FrameWorks Institute’s help, we’ll be working on a core story of public health informatics—a communications platform that includes a variety of communications tools, organized to tell a coherent story and show the value of public health informatics. By this summer, we plan to have an online toolkit of messages and graphics that anyone can access, including state and local health departments, partner organizations, universities and CDC staff.

Ultimately, our goal is to create effective communications messages that will help attract funding for informatics, recruit for informatics training—and maybe even explain the significance of our jobs to our families.

Jessica Cook

Director of Communications