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What is Public Health Informatics?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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Public health informatics is a branch of bioinformatics which applies technology to public health problems. It is often practiced at a government level by various government agencies which deal with public health issues, from public health departments which offer services to the public to government facilities where emerging diseases are studied. Public health informatics is also a tool utilized by private organizations. Several universities offer training in this branch of bioinformatics, usually as part of a school of public health.

Bioinformatics, also known as biomedical informatics or health informatics, is a blend of computer science and the biomedical sciences. It involves utilizing technology to gather data related to health topics, ranging from success rates in surgery to the outcomes of clinical trials, storing that data, and performing data analysis. Informatics includes topics like statistics, used for analysis of data, as well as branches of computer science concerned with security and the longevity of stored data, and it has made medical practice and research much easier.

In public health informatics, people use computer systems as a tool to assist with the practice of public health. Data systems are used to monitor and track communities, with analysis providing tools for spotting patterns, identifying the success rates of various public health interventions, and looking for early signs of emerging public health issues. Using computer systems is much easier than poring through handwritten records, providing opportunities for early intervention.

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In an example of how public health informatics might be used, a public health agency could track sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates in a community. The data could be used to compare and contrast rates between different age and ethnic groups, and to look for emerging patterns such as an increase in incidence of a particular STI, or rising numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections. The data could also be used to see how infection rates respond to public outreach efforts such as education programs, free testing for members of the public, or provision of barriers which can be used during sexual contact to reduce the risk of infection.

Public health professionals rely heavily on public health informatics to do their jobs. The ability to analyze and organize data on computers is very valuable, and can cut down on the amount of time it takes to make important conclusions or discoveries. Public health informatics can also inform public health policy, with public health professionals using the information processed with public health informatics to support policy recommendations.

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