2016 was a big year for Denver. In addition to the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl championship, the regional transit agency introduced three new train lines, with a fourth coming soon, and Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock launched an initiative known as “Vision Zero.” First enacted by the Swedish Parliament in 1997, Vision Zero was designed to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2020. That anyone in the 21st century could seriously imagine a city or country with no serious road traffic injuries is an indicator of how far public health and safety professionals have come in making transportation safer. Improved traffic safety has been a public health goal for decades, due in part to the early intellectual leadership of Dr. William Haddon Jr. as well as the political activism of Ralph Nader. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counts motor vehicle safety as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Even so, Sweden’s notion that traffic deaths and serious injuries can be eradicated was, well… visionary.
In the first decade of Vision Zero, the number of road deaths in Sweden was cut in half. Other governments have since followed Sweden’s model, adopting Vision Zero policies of their own. In the United States, cities like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have taken the lead with efforts to implement. Vision Zero in Denver, as in Sweden, has come both from community activism as well as political leadership. Mayor Hancock made a formal commitment to Vision Zero in February 2016 after receiving support from a network of community organizations in the Denver area. A group of city agencies is currently working to develop a Vision Zero Action Plan for Denver, with ongoing guidance from interested community groups.
Tracking progress in achieving Vision Zero requires data, which is where public health informatics comes in. Public health informatics is ultimately about transforming health-related data into useful information for public health action. I am currently a fellow working at Denver Public Health through the Applied Public Health Informatics Fellowship (APHIF) program. APHIF is supported by CDC, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) as part of the “SHINE” professional development collaboration. Fellows in my program are typically recent graduates of academic programs in public health or computer & information science (I defended my dissertation in epidemiology this past August). We receive one year of on-the-job training at a state or local health agency, where we learn how to communicate and work with the diverse teams of professionals involved in public health informatics.
In an effort to build injury epidemiology capacity within our department, I have been responding to information requests we receive related to injury prevention—my PhD focus. Denver Environmental Health—one of the agencies working on the Vision Zero Action Plan—requested that the Denver Public Health’s Public Health Informatics Group (PHIG) where I am embedded conduct a “hot spot” analysis of transportation injuries in the city. After evaluating different information systems, my fellowship mentors and I concluded that electronic health record data collected by Denver’s paramedics would be best suited to identify hazardous locations. Geographic location data assigned by the 911 call system are the most precise measures of injuries’ incident locations in any available health records. Also, the paramedic data capture injuries that police reports—which are publicly available and have previously been analyzed—might miss.
Through a partnership with the Denver Health Paramedics Division, we evaluated five years of transportation injury data and identified specific locations in Denver that might benefit from additional attention (e.g., intersection redesign, traffic enforcement, etc.). Denver Environmental Health and the other members of the Vision Zero work group will use our report to help develop recommendations to improve transportation safety in Denver. I look forward to seeing how the report is used.
What I have enjoyed the most about this fellowship has been working in an applied setting with committed public health practitioners and learning from professionals trained in other disciplines, including computer science, software development and database management. This cross cutting, interprofessional education is helping me and other fellows in my cohort build skills to translate across disciplines and, hopefully, secure long-term career placement in governmental public health. It has been rewarding to apply my formal education in epidemiology to public health issues and information systems specific to Denver—the city where I was born and raised. As a child, I was treated by Denver’s paramedics for injuries I sustained after running through a glass door. A surgeon at Denver Health helped me return to play after I experienced a shoulder injury playing high school football. And as a bike commuter, I have crossed through intersections that our analyses highlight for improvements. In other words, working with these particular information systems carries a personal significance for me. And from a professional standpoint, the APHIF program has given me valuable experience working in local public health which, as we say, is where the rubber meets the road.