CDC funds informatics for public health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made two grants totaling $8.3 million for research projects to increase the use of information technology in public health.

A $4.5 million grant is going to a consortium of Boston-based organizations, including Harvard Medical School. The other grant, worth $3.8 million, is going to the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine. A CDC announcement states that the grants would support centers of excellence in public health informatics.

In Boston, one project will create software doctors can use to search electronic medical records for signs of diseases with public health consequences, such as tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases, and communicate that information to public health officials.

A second Boston project will establish three-way communications among the owners of personal health records, physicians and public health officials. The initial focus will be on influenza immunizations for high-risk populations, with a link to a Massachusetts immunization registry, but the effort will later extend to other conditions.

Dr. Richard Platt, chairman of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, said the three-year projects would produce software for use in public health programs nationwide.

In Seattle, one CDC-funded project will improve public health surveillance and detection of epidemics.

The second will develop an interactive knowledge management system that will display relationships among research findings and data sets. Disease investigators and other public health workers will be able to find important information about issues such as the incidence of disease, information that now is difficult to obtain, said Dr. Sherilynne Fuller, a professor of biomedical informatics and one of the project directors.

Mike Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke earlier this month of “an urgent need for improved biosurveillance in this country to help protect us from both pandemics and bioterrorism. Preparation for these threats must become a national priority.

“I am going to be asking state, regional and local health organizations to join together to enhance our preparation,” Leavitt said. “I want a system that will stream emergency room data from local, state and national health authorities multiple times a day.”

When it announced the informatics grants, CDC also announced grants to improve communication of health information to the public.

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