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Putting People First in Public Health Informatics

Posted By Juliet Sheridan, MPH, Monday, January 23, 2017
Updated: Monday, January 23, 2017

As a self-proclaimed data nerd, I was initially excited about being accepted into the Applied Public Health Informatics Fellowship (APHIF) because I’d have the chance to improve my technical skills in a real-world setting. Supported by CDC, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), my APHIF work is part of the “Project SHINE” professional development collaboration. Imagine my surprise when my main fellowship project for the Family Success Alliance turned out to be more about people than the technical specs.

The Family Success Alliance (FSA) is a collective impact initiative developed to ensure that children whose families struggle to make ends meet have the educational and economic opportunities to succeed in Orange County, NC. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, FSA works in two neighborhoods called ‘Zones’ to provide a “pipeline” of evidence-based programs, services and supports from cradle to career. With over 200 participants in the first two years and yearly expansion planned, FSA needed a way to keep track of demographic, program and outcome information for each participant and their family.


The Family Success Alliance (FSA) is a collective impact initiative developed to ensure that children whose families struggle to make ends meet have the educational and economic opportunities to succeed in Orange County, NC.

Because the collaborative spans many sectors, including local government, school districts, non-profit organizations and funders, we couldn’t just set up a regular database. It was important to track not only what was happening, e.g., tracking participation in programming, but also how partners were interacting, e.g., whether the afterschool tutoring organization also referred participants to our mental health partners. We needed this tracking to occur in real-time across 13 different organizations, while also being HIPAA and FERPA compliant.

To this end, I was selected to implement a shared measurement system that all our partners could access and utilize. The United Way, one of our funders, uses a web-based case management system called Efforts to Outcomes (ETO), created by Social Solutions, Inc., which we decided to adopt for FSA. I focused first on the technical components necessary for success, such as gathering requirements, managing permissions and building reports. However, I realized that the most important pieces of this project were non-technical. How do you build trust among partners? Maintain common goals and accountability? Allow for unique organizational needs? Prioritize equity? These questions ultimately informed most of my work during my fellowship experience.



Pictured: FSA partners are pictured here during a working meeting.

Before I could begin setting up ETO, we had to create and sign a Master Data Sharing Agreement that outlined the appropriate use, storage, analysis and security for the data we would enter into our system. We found that this agreement could not move forward without numerous conversations about each partners’ experience with similar data, capacity for data management and expectations for security, confidentiality and privacy. Fundamentally, these conversations were about building trust. Do you and your partners trust each other to be good stewards of the data? Do your clients trust you to maintain their information in a secure way? The Data Sharing Agreement is just the first step in a continuing conversation about data use and practices; my role is to accompany our partners in that discussion.

Now that the Master Data Sharing Agreement is almost complete, I’ve turned my attention to getting the system set up for our community partners. In designing the forms and user interface on the website, it is crucial to keep the end goals of the collaborative in mind, so that we can measure the impact on the community. One of the guiding principles of the Alliance is equity, and that is no less true when it comes to data. This principle informs both logistical and measurement questions about our data, including who enters the data, how we train staff, if we are capturing community strengths, and whether we’re contributing to a “fixing systems” mentality instead of “fixing people”. The real questions we want to answer using this database are about families living in Orange County and whether their children are ready for kindergarten; if they have appropriate, stable housing; and if there more families living above the poverty line as a result of our work. If I focused only on the technical requirements of the database, I’d lose sight of what is truly important about the work we’re doing.



Pictured: Here, a teacher reads to children in the Kindergarten Readiness Program.

Through my APHIF experience, I’ve found that informatics is about so much more than just technical skills. Systems like ETO improve our processes and contribute to data-driven decision making, but they must also be designed with human “requirements” in mind, like trust, accountability and equity in order to be truly successful. I am so grateful to my mentors, our community partners, Family Success Alliance staff and funders for their continued support and assistance. The Orange County Health Department and the APHIF program have afforded me this unique opportunity that has changed the way I will approach public health informatics throughout my career.

Juliet Sheridan is an Applied Public Health Informatics Fellow at the Orange County Health Department in North Carolina. She received her MPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Sheridan’s post is the third in a series of blogs by CSTE-sponsored fellows.

Tags:  Cross cutting  Epidemiology  Fellowship  Informatics  Surveillance  Workforce Development 

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