Newswise — As the U.S. health system goes digital, from patient records to fitness trackers to web-based medical insurance marketplaces, a national group of health information experts has issued recommendations to guide the new field of population health informatics.

Writing in the March issue of the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, the experts, led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Population Health IT (CPHIT) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, call for a host of common-sense strategies. These include public- and private-sector policies for collaboration, data sharing and privacy protocols and the adoption of new state-of-the-art technologies. Without them, the experts say, the billions of bytes of “big data” now online may not be used to maximum effect to address the numerous health challenges facing communities across the nation.

The growth of health information technology over the past decade has been unprecedented. Use of electronic health records among physicians and hospitals has quadrupled in the past decade and most of us now own smartphones with several wellness apps. The potential for medical providers, consumers, health plan providers and government agencies to collaborate and link these and other digital tools could significantly improve health programs, with a special emphasis on helping those now falling through the cracks, or who get care too late to do the most good.

“Given the transformation of the health care and health IT fields under both public- and private-sector reforms, the need to establish and set priorities in this burgeoning arena has never been greater,” says Hadi Kharrazi, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the Bloomberg School and the lead author of the group’s published report. Population health is one of the fastest growing areas in health care. It is not just about “patients” who seek care; it is about everyone. It represents a blending of both public health and medical principles. A target “population” can be a specific geographic community or it may represent some other “denominator,” such as enrollees of a health plan or those cared for by a clinic or group doctors. A population can be as small as an urban neighborhood or as vast as all Medicare enrollees.

The experts identified 18 specific priority recommendations. Some of these included:

+ Develop a standardized approach for linking medical, social, environmental and insurance data from a community;+ Expand case finding and predictive modeling tools at the level of neighborhoods;+ Digital “learning health systems” that add evidence about what works should not just have a medical focus, but should also take a population or community perspectives; and,+ Develop model regulations for linking and sharing existing data for community good, while protecting individual privacy.

“These recommendations represent the latest thinking of a diverse group of stakeholders,” says Jonathan Weiner, DrPH, director of Johns Hopkins CPHIT and a professor at the Bloomberg School. “But given the dynamic state of the fields of health policy, population health management and informatics, the recommendations outlined will require monitoring and frequent updating.”

“A proposed national research and development agenda for population health informatics: A summary recommendation from a National Expert Workshop” was written by Hadi Kharrazi, Elyse C. Laser, William A. Yasnoff, John Loonsk, Aneel Advani, Harold P. Lehmann, David C. Chin and Jonathan P. Weiner.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Library of Medicine (RLM011955A).

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