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Tech & Tools

Big Data Resources for Public Health

Although studies and surveys have shown that using information technology to analyze Big Health datasets and guide public health decisions can improve health equity, the majority of community health center leaders and staff report receiving little to no training in health informatics.

At the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health shared a training protocol designed to remedy this gap and be replicated nationwide.

“There is so much information collected by community health centers, health departments, hospitals, and other public health services—ranging from vaccination records to blood pressure screenings—that could give us insights about the public health needs of a community,” according to Elizabeth Van Nostrand, JD, associate director for law and policy in Pitt Public Health’s Center for Public Health Practice. “But it can be difficult for these types of health agencies, which often provide a safety net for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, to make this data work for them and the people they serve. That’s where we hope to help.”

Van Nostrand directs the Mid-Atlantic Regional Public Health Training Center, which is a member of a national network funded by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration and serves public health practitioners in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Washington, DC, and Maryland. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Public Health Training Center was selected to lead all 10 national training centers in providing a digital destination for the public health workforce to understand and train in the use of health informatics.

The training center’s protocol teaches public health providers to assess their needs when it comes to health informatics, and then guides them through a vetted list of more than 100 training programs, webinars, and tools that can address those needs.

“Our goal isn’t to tell a center, ‘This is the best informatics tool for you.’ Our goal is to help them recognize their needs and learn how informatics can serve them,” according to Van Nostrand.

Also at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, Van Nostrand shared the following free, open-access public health informatics tools developed at Pitt Public Health that can aid the public health workforce in preparing for and responding to emergencies and disasters:

  • The Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics, or FRED, aids the public health workforce in preparing for and responding to disasters.
  • The LEgal Network Analyzer, or LENA, assists with analyzing and comparing emergency laws, regulations, and policies, and determines which public health agencies are legally directed to work together in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.
  • Project TYCHO is a repository of data from all weekly disease reports for the United States dating back to 1888.
  • The Emergency Law Inventory, or ELI, contains more than 1,500 laws, searchable by profession and jurisdiction, which impede or facilitate volunteer response to disasters.

“By sharing these resources, and helping the public health professionals who work in our communities to understand what resources are out there and how they may be useful, I hope that we’ll be able to move the needle on data sharing,” according to Van Nostrand. “And that will ultimately allow us to make more informed decisions about allocating public health resources.”

— Source: Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh