The ability to collect, process, and act upon data is central to the mission of public health. In the past several decades, the advancement in informatics, particularly in the areas of electronic data exchange and advanced data analytics, has afforded public health workers and academicians an unprecedented set of tools to assemble and make sense of large volumes of data from diverse settings. This capability is further extended thanks to the now nearly ubiquitous adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) in U.S. hospitals and clinics,1,2 higher performance computing and faster computer networks, and increased citizen participation in public health activities on social media. In this digital era, informatics has undoubtedly become a core competency for leaders and practitioners in public and population health.
The term “informatics” is an amalgamation of “information” and “automatic.” It was first coined in 1957 by the German computer scientist Karl Steinbuch to describe automatic processing of information—usually through computing systems.3 Today, it is used to broadly describe the study, design, and development of information technology for the good of people, organizations, and society.4 In the last 15 years, biomedical and health informatics has been the fastest growing subdomain of informatics. Biomedical and health informatics is a scientific discipline that applies informatics principles to the advancement of life sciences research, health professions education, public health, and patient care.5
Public health informatics is, in turn, a subspecialty of biomedical and health informatics dedicated to serving the needs of public health practice, research, and learning.6 Public health informatics concerns a broad range of activities relevant to the health of populations, rather than the medical care of individual patients. It also has strong links to government agencies such as the health departments at local, state, and national levels. Public health informatics applications thus have a predominant focus on surveillance, prevention, and routine collection of population-level data from communities (e.g., socioeconomic determinants of health) to inform health policy making and disaster planning. As defined by the American Medical Informatics Association,7 public health informatics is:
The application of informatics in areas of public health, including surveillance, prevention, preparedness, and health promotion. Public health informatics and the related population informatics, work on information and technology issues from the perspective of groups of individuals. Public health is extremely broad and can even touch on the environment, work and living places and more.
The field of public health informatics has developed substantially in the past decade. Its rise has revolutionized many public health processes, and contributed to the improved health of millions of lives. Public health informatics is a multidisciplinary field in nature, which is built upon many component sciences such as computer and information sciences, engineering, operation research, and cognitive and social sciences. According to Savel and Foldy,8 the work of public health informatics comprises three major categories1: study and description of complex systems (e.g., models ...