Research

The Health Care Informatics Core (HCI)

Health Care Informatics involves the exploration and analysis of data generated within the health care system. Data sources range from electronic medical records used in patient care to support the medical treatment of individuals, to the massive data sets generated by health care providers, insurance companies, employers, and federal health agencies that are available for the analysis of a wide range of health system problems and outcomes. This is a broad category with many subcategories, including, for example, clinical informatics, which specifically focuses on the use of data by doctors in patient care for record keeping, case management and evidence-based decision making. One goal within this specialized core is to enhance and improve the utility of information technology for practicing physicians, a subject that will benefit directly from the collaborative involvement of medical faculty with the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

On a different scale, Health Care Informatics has taken on the daunting task of evaluating the economic impacts of the Affordable Care Act and the complex effort in the US to make public access to health care affordable and sustainable. A dominant issue is the increasing role of value-based reimbursement models for efficient, high quality management of populations in both the private and government payer arenas. Risk-based reimbursement is the single most important driver for the health care analytics industry. UGA has the opportunity to contribute with its Health Informatics Institute in collaboration with other programs of the University to conduct research in this dynamic field and help to prepare the next generation of its workforce.

In addition to PhD researchers, the faculty who are engaged in health care informatics include scholar/MDs with a background in medical practice who have developed and sustained an active interest in the development of informatics tools, and view health analytics as an essential discipline for the future of clinical care. Programs in this field are emerging in part because doctors with significant computational skills and a belief that medicine will evolve in this direction have combined medical practice with health informatics research, thus contributing directly to the informatics revolution in our health care system.

The Public Health Informatics Core (PHI)

Public Health Informatics involves the examination of the resources, devices, and methods required to optimize the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information from the health and health care sectors. This involves using currently evolving methods to achieve traditional and essential objectives of the discipline, such as improving the health of whole populations, disease surveillance, analyzing disease transmission in epidemics, supporting disease prevention, and conceptualizing, implementing, and evaluating large-scale interventions. Public Health Informatics can, for example, involve experimenting with new methods, such as more effective disease surveillance based on social media messaging and other alternative data sources. Researchers in this field explore “trustworthy informatics” to determine if health-related data available on the World Wide Web is accurate, assessing the efficacy of large scale population health interventions through the analysis of “big data,” or developing and evaluating the impact of data collection innovations, such as health information exchanges for various diseases in a community.

To provide a specific example at UGA, faculty in the College of Public Health are partnering with faculty in the UGA Department of Computer Science and with scientists and policy makers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the use of “big data” to identify “hot spots” throughout Georgia where isolated HIV outbreaks may occur. There is a related interdisciplinary project involving Public Health, Computer Science, and the Georgia Department of Public Health focused on identifying websites that use on-line collaborative documents (e.g., Wikipedia and HIV-related blogs) that are vulnerable to vandalism or that can be used to disseminate false and potentially harmful information and misconceptions about antiretroviral therapies (ARTs) for persons living with HIV/AIDS (asserting, for example, that HIV is unrelated to AIDS and that ARTs are toxic). Forming the Health Informatics Institute will amplify and accelerate the development of similar interdisciplinary collaborations with UGA and outside partners.

The Health Systems Modeling Core (HSM)

Almost any issue in public health consists of many different components, interacting in potentially complex ways and undergoing continuous change. Studying the different components of such a complex system in isolation, and basing interventions on such narrow studies – which is the classic reductionist approach in conventional science – rarely yields optimal results. Instead, better results may be obtained by employing a systems approach, which means that an entire system is studied concurrently in a comprehensive observation.

A quintessential aspect of systems science is the use of mathematical and computational models. Dynamic Systems Modeling requires the simulation of a complex system and exploration of the impact of specific health interventions applied to the model. Bringing together scholars within the college and beyond that use systems modeling in their research helps to advance innovation and further strengthen collaboration among those individuals as they work to achieve the kind of analytical coherence that is valuable for decision making in complex health care fields. This leads to increased research productivity and allows for the development of a curriculum around the theme of systems modeling applied to health care and public health problems. As far as we are aware, such a program would be unique in the US.