UMD researchers create tool for using IT to solve public health crises

Health crises — like the spread of the Zika virus — are challenging for public health officials and physicians to address. New research from College Park-based University of Maryland proves these difficulties are linked to a lack of guidance in how to strategize about IT investments, according to Ritu Agarwal, PhD, the Robert H. Smith dean's chair of information systems and senior associate dean for faculty and research at UMD.

Dr. Agarwal and UMD researchers completed a two-year "intensive analysis" of an EHR rollout in Montgomery County, Md., as well as a Maryland-based primary care coalition, which helps local hospitals give services to low-income patients. As part of the analysis, they conducted staff interviews, observed staff members, distributed staff surveys and sat in on patient focus groups.

"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," said Dr. Agarwal in a statement. "All of this does not bode well, either for crisis response or for proactive crisis anticipation."

Dr. Agarwal and her team then developed a new tool, the Public Health Information Technology Maturity Index, which is split up into four IT-based categories: quality; scale and scope of use; human capital, policy and resources; and community infrastructure. Public Health officials and physicians can use the PHIT Maturity Index to "measure their departments' progress in using IT to support its public health mission, or in other words, its journey towards maturity," Dr. Agarwal said.

Their research, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is published in Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research.

More articles on health IT:
The EHRs used at US News' 10 top hospitals
Philadelphia opens access to public health data
Apple CEO Tim Cook on encryption, privacy and the battle with the FBI

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