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December 6, 2017

Moving toward informatics savviness: a tale of two health departments

PHII's team with the CDPH at our site visit to Chicago.

As the new year approaches, thoughts often turn to assessing one’s current situation and defining goals for the future. Although it’s often a personal exercise, this may also be a good time for health department staff to think about how well they manage and share information with internal programs as well as with external partners that, more and more, include healthcare organizations. Building and strengthening these informatics networks will support more informed decision making and, ultimately, lead to better health outcomes for the public.

This year at PHII, our team had the opportunity to work with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Detroit Health Department (DHD) to assess their informatics proficiency and needs, using tools developed by PHII to assist in this process. This project and the tools were both funded through a cooperative agreement with the CDC.

Thinking strategically for more effective sharing

The informatics-savvy health department is designed and staffed to address the challenge of managing and disseminating disparate data sets among internal and external partners to improve community health.

While proficiency in managing and sharing a variety of health data varies widely across health departments, recognition of its importance is growing. Oftentimes, what happens is that a group (e.g., for HIV surveillance) gets funding, builds a database, collects data and reports it out. But there may be little or no way to connect this dataset to other relevant data in a way that makes them more useful and actionable for internal and external stakeholders.

The PHII assessment tools were developed to help health department staff think strategically about these areas and identify needs. Examples of topics for discussion are who has authority over these data, and how they can best be connected, analyzed and used.

Customizing the PHII tools to individual needs

As a first step, CDPH and DHD completed self-assessments using PHII’s tool, Building an Informatics-Savvy Health Department. This exercise is important for understanding current capabilities and identifying priorities for future enhancement.

The PHII team then held a series of phone calls with each health department to discuss findings from these assessments and decide jointly on the most appropriate PHII tools to use with each group for a subsequent site visit.

  • CDPH is an established public health agency with well-developed systems, but recognized the need to build agency-wide informatics practices and procedures. During the site visit, we facilitated two exercises and walked through an analysis of their completed informatics inventory, using the “Acting on the Results” section of our Public Health Informatics Profile Toolkit, which provides tip sheets with recommendations for building robust systems.
  • DHD is transitioning to a public health agency structure following a period of privatization, and their needs focus on building basic informatics capacities, including staffing. DHD sought specific recommendations for follow-up activities based on their self-assessment findings. For the site visit, we focused on the “Informatics Vision and Governance” section of PHII’s Building an Informatics-Savvy Health Department self-assessment.

Overall observations and takeaways

While the differences between these two health departments were striking, in the end, everyone is trying to get to the same place. We learned that there is a great deal of interest in building robust informatics systems, but the big challenges for everyone are resources and time. Findings from the PHII tools can help health departments justify this commitment to leadership and stakeholders.

Not surprisingly, our team had some takeaway lessons as well, so in a way you could say we did our own “self-assessments” during this project. We are now working on some refinements to the tools based on these experiences, and hope to make them available soon.