In Case You Missed It: 10 Headlines from ASTHO’s Public Health TechXpo

May 18, 2022 | Dylan Reynolds

ASTHO Public Health TechXpo logoOn May 10 – 11, 2022, ASTHO held its second annual Public Health TechXpo, gathering experts from across the public health and technology sectors to further the discussion of how crucial data modernization is protecting the health of all Americans. More than 1,400 public health and data professionals registered for the interactive, fully virtual event. Here’s a quick rundown of the headlines from a packed schedule:

  1. The opening address was given by David Rhew, MD, Microsoft’s global chief medical officer and vice president of healthcare. Rhew discussed the importance of making consumers central to managing their health data. “Legislation over recent years has allowed us to empower consumers with their own health information,” said Rhew. “Interoperability is about sharing information. Consumers need to be in charge of their records; it should be fair, equitable, and free.” Read more about SMART Health Cards.

    ASTHO CEO Michael Fraser, PhD, shared the collective nature of improving technology in public health: “It’s going to take a village. We want data modernization to represent the innovation of all of public health.”

  2. Later in the day, a team from RTI International discussed modeling tools and methods used in public health research that can inform policy, including:

    • PRISM: This public, web-based tool simulates health, disease, and related economic outcomes to help health agencies make informed decisions about which chronic disease interventions to implement in their communities.
    • Synthetic Household Population: This tool represents 116 million hypothetical households and 300 million “people” and can help experts plan for emergency response or simulate community transmission of an infectious disease all without privacy concerns.
    • Rarity: This curated database of 150 social determinants of health measures within 10 domains at the Census tract, ZIP code, and county levels to create local social inequity scores.
  3. A panel of experts from Guidehouse discussed how clinical care and community data can augment public health HIV surveillance to track enrollment, service linkages, and social determinants of health from patient to population-level health outcomes. Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP (SHO-TN), shared her thoughts on how politics has put the issue of data privacy at center stage. “We've been thrust into the politicization of health,” said Piercey. “It is a barrier that needs to be removed in the population health field…Data helps patients lead healthier and more productive lives and saves on costs.”

    Piercey went on to share why data and systems interoperability will be critical in the coming years. “Two major pieces to ending the HIV epidemic by 2030: early diagnosis, prompt treatment and retention in care. We have to be able to coordinate throughout disparate systems to have better individual and population health outcomes.”

  4. Later that afternoon, Amazon Web Services (AWS) brought together a panel to explore how public health agencies work through their cloud journeys from strategic visioning through implementation. Sarah Reisetter, JD, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, shared the leap the department took on its Public Health Tracking Portal: “We had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild data systems in Iowa to tackle our modernization problems. We’re heavily invested in exploring what the cloud can do for us. We’re thinking really big about what opportunities we may have in front of us including how data is ingested by the health department.”

    Kelsey Florek, PhD, MPH, senior genomics and data scientist at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, helps develop and build genomics and data analytics capacity both within the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and the greater public health community. Florek shared how she has utilized AWS in her effort to break down barriers to scale up bioinformatics quickly and easily.

  5. Day one’s closing panel discussed the collaboration necessary to solve the problem of modernizing public health data systems. Janet Hamilton, MPH, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, shared that, “The charge of public health to speak about what is happening to the nation at a granular enough way so it’s meaningful to the public,” said Hamilton. “Public health isn’t keeping pace with the healthcare sector and data is not moving at the speed or scale that it needs to.”

    Scott J. Becker, MS also chimed in with perspective from the Association of Public Health Laboratories: “[Public health labs] are an important node but not the only node…clinical and commercial labs are critical partners, said Becker. “One huge need is the opportunity for electronic test ordering and result reporting,” Becker continued. “The system doesn’t exist, and it needs to exist. It’s not just about technology. It’s about agreements, and working together with public health labs, commercial laboratories, and academia.”

  6. Day two of the COVID-19 TechXpo kicked off with a keynote speech from John Halamka, MD, MS, president of the Mayo Clinic Platform. Halamka, who has more than 40 years of experience leading national and global healthcare information strategy, opened the session by challenging the audience with a question: “How do we instrument data collected in hospitals and transmit that data to a central location for analysis?”

    Halamaka argued that in the year 2022, technological advancement is not the problem. Rather, he said that the biggest barriers facing the public health technological revolution were failures in our systems. These included aging data systems, inability to handle high data volume, lack of common data standards, and policy concerns as some of the major barriers. Halamaka went on to say that we must be strategic in what issues we prioritize, and how: "We can do anything, but we can't do everything!”

  7. ASTHO President-Elect Anne Zink, MD, FACEP (SHO-AK) led an immersive conversation around creating healthy data ecosystems that health departments in which health departments can thrive. Zink shared steps Alaska has taken to better unite its data systems and foster trust in the community, by working alongside members of the community and local leaders.

    Panelists spoke to the tremendous challenges and opportunities of modernizing the nation’s public health data ecosystem and engaged in a rich discussion about the role of federal partners, states, territories, locales, and tribes in advancing this national undertaking. A recurring theme was a commitment to equity. “Let us prioritize equity. Let us center equity,” said Gail Christopher, DN, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems. “That means taking a realistic look at the total populations and being able to respond to where the need is the greatest.” She was joined by CDC Deputy Director for Science and Surveillance Dan Jernigan, MD, MPH, and HHS National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Micky Tripathi, PhD, MPP.

  8. Throughout the entirety of the TechXpo, health equity prevailed as a thematic cornerstone of many conversations. Our speakers emphasized that no data modernization effort would be complete—nor considered successful—if it did not serve every member of our community. In one equity-centered conversation, Kimberlee Wyche Etheridge, MD, MPH—ASTHO’s senior vice president of health equity and diversity initiatives—kicked off the session by challenging participants to begin any equity initiative with a commitment to building trust with communities in need.

    For Paula Tran, MPH (SHO-WI), achieving true equity does not only mean bolstering our data systems, but building trust with communities where we continue to see gaps in data. “We need to fundamentally rethink the information we collect, how we collect, and who owns that information,” said Tran. “Trust is earned, and one way to earn that is through transparency and accountability. Having the data so everyone can collaborate around it is key.”

  9. Later in the day, ASTHO Senior Vice President for Population Health and Innovation J.T. Lane, MPH led a forward-thinking conversation on innovation in the public health space. The session delved into the steps that public-private partnerships can play in long-term innovation so public health data systems stay ahead of the curve.

    In particular, Umair Shah, MD, MPH (SHO-WA) emphasized the value of a strong relationship between our healthcare and public health networks. "The healthcare system is the quarterback and public health is the offensive line, and that partnership is key,” said Shah. “But when the quarterback receives all of the attention without also investing in that offensive line, then your strategy isn't really going work."

  10. Our closing session tied together many of the conference’s themes in a dynamic discussion about what the next 5-10 years has in store for the public health community. Robust coordination between health departments, radical changes in our social systems, and a cross-sector approach to improving health were all a part of the mosaic of success that speakers outlined for our audience.

    Lena Sun, MA national reporter with The Washington Post, reminded attendees that accessibility begins with how we talk about the public health mission. “Each health department needs one person that can explain [public health] without any jargon…if you can’t explain that to the American people in an understandable, interesting way, you’re not getting funded.”