Public Health Informatics: The Basics

Informatics technology can enhance public health planning and action and can help identify and measure inequities within a community. These new technologies have the potential to transform the way public health agencies manage information, address inequalities and deliver health services, and can lead to:

  • Increased efficiency
  • Faster and better reporting
  • More informed health policy through better quality data and insights
  • Increased quality of care provided by LHDs that serve as safety net providers

What types of public health informatics are being used by local health departments?

  • Electronic Health Records (EHR): Public health agencies are now beginning to use EHR systems to manage clinical encounters and documentation, facilitate clinical decision support, perform syndromic surveillance and enhance patient care. A 2010 study by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) found that 13 percent of LHDs providing primary care use EHRs and 64 percent of those using paper-based systems plan to implement an EHR. All LHDs—including those that do not provide primary care—can benefit greatly from an EHR system, as EHR enables them to track the individuals who use their services. The use of an EHR system also allows LHDs to participate in health information exchange. Depending on the services they provide and the population they serve, providers in LHDs that use certified EHR systems may be eligible to receive incentive funds through the EHR Incentive Programs.
  • Electronic Dental Records (EDR): Used by some LHDs that provide dental services, EDR software provides clinical charting for oral health providers. EDRs can be interfaced with EHR systems, enabling LHDs that provide both oral health and primary care services to maintain a single record for each patient and deliver an uninterrupted patient experience.
  • Health Information Exchange (HIE): A HIE refers to an exchange network or an organization that operates a network that connects the electronic health information systems of different health care providers. HIEs enable those providers to share clinical and demographic data of patients they have in common. For instance, a primary care physician may share a patient's data with that patient's cardiologist. As a verb, HIE refers to the actual transmission of health information. HIE is becoming a focus of LHDs, who are increasingly involved with HIEs to collect real-time surveillance data as part of a syndromic surveillance system. HIEs can also be used to identify inequities within a community.
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Many public health agencies—especially those that serve a large population—use GIS technology to visually depict data of health care issues across a community. Maps generated by GIS systems that demonstrate relationships among data can be used to identify gaps and inform policy makers.