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Defining Public Health Informatics

Informatics is the process by which raw data turns into information and, subsequently, knowledge. 

Overview

Informaticians act as knowledge architects, designing the blueprints for the complex data systems that keep information secure, usable and responsive.

Informatics is an applied information science that designs the blueprints for the complex data systems that keep information secure, usable and responsive to the user’s needs. Informaticians often act as knowledge architects—the information systems they build account for function, user needs and even local context.  

Informatics synthesizes the theory and practices of computer science, information sciences, and behavioral and management sciences into methods, tools and concepts that lead to information systems that impact health. When employed effectively, informatics transforms raw data into usable information.

Siloed areas within public health often speak different data "languages," making it difficult for them to work together toward shared public health goals. Informatics serves as a needed translator between these work areas. 

Information is a needed resource in public health work, serving as the first step in large-scale analyses of diseases, whether chronic or infectious. Practitioners require information as a resource, but obtaining or interpreting data can be difficult. Informatics can often function essentially as a translation service for these practitioners by interpreting data, turning them into information, and presenting that information to the practitioners who need it in a language they can understand. 

 
When applied to public health, informatics can be used to enable effective monitoring and surveillance, support improved decision-making, and improve population health. Public health informatics assures that the right technologies are used to improve timely delivery of quality data and assists data-driven decision making. It builds bridges across siloed public health work areas by “translating” between these communities, creating opportunities for interoperable information pathways. Ultimately, public health informatics empowers disease interventions and prevention—leading to better health of individuals and the community in which they live.
 

"Infor-what-ics?": How to talk about an emerging field

In spite of its important role, informatics is not widely understood in the field of public health—and as a result, its expertise and contributions are often invisible, underutilized and under-resourced. For many professionals within public health, communicating the value of public health informatics to leaders is not easy. In partnership with the CDC and the FrameWorks Institute, PHII is pleased to offer free tools to assist in these communications efforts.

Communicators are encouraged to borrow the toolkit language and adapt the examples and recommendations to the immediate needs of a specific communications context. No citations or special permissions are needed for these public-facing applications.

Public health informatics at PHII

As part of its core mission, PHII harnesses the principles of informatics to support improved health outcomes. PHII’s staff works to develop the informatics capabilities of both U.S. and global agencies in order to help them thrive in the growing e-health world. 
  • Among many other domestic projects, we created a learning community that brought states together to learn from each other as they built, designed and implemented immunization registries. These registries maintain immunization status data on over 90 percent of children in almost every state.
  • Globally, we recently developed a tool for the Mozambique Ministry of Health, which allocates available health care workers around the country. In Mozambique, health care worker shortages are rampant, but this tool helps place available workers in the most optimal manner, ensuring that HIV testing and treatment are accessible by all. 
  • We are also partnering with Emory Global Health Institute on the Gates Foundation-funded project CHAMPS (Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network), an initiative that will determine the most common causes of death for children under the age of 5 in developing nations. This project will make use of several on-site disease surveillance centers to gather these data in order to inform child mortality prevention programs.

Learn more

PHII's free podcast explores the field of public health informatics through stories from its practitioners.

PHII continually creates tools and resources to educate the public health workforce on informatics:
  • With funding from the deBeaumont Foundation, PHII recently created a series of videos detailing the ways that informatics can support the work of professionals at all levels of public health agencies, including practitioners, program managers and senior leaders.
  • In early 2016, PHII launched a new podcast called "Inform Me, Informatics!" The podcast examines the field of public health informatics through the lens of its top experts and their stories. The podcast is available on SoundCloud, iTunes and Google Play.
  • Under a grant from the CDC, PHII conducted a keyword-in-context analysis of academic publications and media mentions to explore current general understanding of the term “public health informatics.” The resulting report is available on our website.
  • A recent article published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice defines “public health informatics” and summarizes some key recommendations for communicating in this field.