Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Public health gets with tech

Steve Cline started with a disclaimer: "I'm not an IT geek." Still, the coordinator for health information technology at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, says he has a lot of appreciation for what technology has done — and most definitely will do — for the public's health.

"I really believe health (information technology) is a new frontier for public health that we really need to embrace," he told attendees at a Wednesday morning session on "Technological Strategies to Advance Public Health."

Next Cline asked attendees an interesting question: Why do we tolerate such poor information technology in health? We wouldn't accept it in many other aspects of our lives. (Seriously, how many times have we all stopped what we were doing to curse our slow telephone, computer, insert any electronic gizmo here.) But when it comes to health, barely an audible peep. The technology for medical interventions has made enormous leaps and bounds, but in terms of the overall operation of the health system, we have a long way to go, Cline said.

Fortunately, North Carolina is helping to lead the way toward a more tech-savvy health system. The goals of the state's health information technology efforts, which has more than $1 billion invested in its development, are: improved quality, better health, controlled costs and better engagement with health care consumers.

"North Carolina is really living out the concept that public health must be more integrated with clinical care and medical providers if we're to be relevant and sustainable," Cline said.

A couple examples of North Carolina's successes: Community Care of North Carolina, which is comprised of 14 networks of providers committed to caring for Medicaid, Medicare and uninsured patients, is busy investing in an informatics center that will create a systems-wide approach to patient care and foster new, innovative models of delivery. Also, the North Carolina Community Health Information Portal, which is still under development, is taking "huge amounts of data and turning that into compelling stories" to help us do the work of public health, Cline said.

Information technology reform is health care reform, he told attendees.

Daniel Jensen, associate director of public health at Olmsted County Public Health Services in southeast Minnesota, was described during his introduction as an evangelist for public health information exchange. Jensen told attendees about the impressive amount of work that public health has done to bring communities of care together via improved information technology.

For example, the public health agency is working to coordinate better asthma care between parents, providers, public health and schools. Today, just through improving the "paper sharing" process, there's 2,500 asthma action plans now on file with school nurses. When the effort began, less than 400 such plans were on file despite the more than 5,000 students who had serious asthma problems. Now, the focus has turned to building an online portal for school nurses so no matter which school they're working at, they'll know which kids have asthma and how to be prepared in case of an asthma attack.

"We can build better systems," Jensen said.

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