UMD researchers develop tool to counter public health IT challenges

From University of Maryland:

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Front-line protection of U.S. communities against disease epidemics relies on seamless information sharing between public health officials and doctors, plus the wherewithal to act on that data. But health departments have faltered in this mission by lacking guidance to effectively strategize about appropriate “IT investments. And incidents like the current Zika crisis bring the issue to the forefront,” says Ritu Agarwal, Robert H. Smith Dean’s Chair of Information Systems and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Agarwal, with a team of UMD researchers, recently finished a two-year “intensive analysis” of the rollout of an electronic health records system in Montgomery County, Md., and a local primary care coalition, which works with a system of hospitals and clinics designed to provide safety net services to low-income patients.

“We uncovered a host of barriers and obstacles to effective use of information, including the complexity and usability of the software, the inability of the software to support certain unique public health reporting needs, the learning curve for public health workers, and the lack of standards for effective data exchange,” Agarwal says. “All of this does not bode well, either for crisis response or for proactive crisis anticipation.” 

Their findings are published in Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research and detail a new tool, a Public Health Information Technology (PHIT) Maturity Index, to better understand and counter the shortcomings they observed.

“Health departments can apply the index to assessing their IT capabilities, benchmarking with their peers, setting specific goals and fostering a cycle of continuous improvement,” says coauthor and researcher Kenyon Crowley, deputy director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS) in the Smith School.

Prior to late-July confirmation of U.S. Zika cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden warned: …

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