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U Center of Excellence Will Improve Public Health Response to Outbreaks of Disease

(SALT LAKE CITY)—After a national competition, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chose the University of Utah as the home of a new center of excellence (COE) in public health informatics.

One of only four centers chosen nationwide, the Utah center, named the “Rocky Mountain Center for Translational Research in Public Health Informatics,” joins three others at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Indiana University, and the University of Pittsburgh, all of which were funded to discover strategies and tools that increase the ability of health departments, physicians, and other health-care providers to promote health and prevent diseases, injuries or disabilities. The Utah center will receive approximately $5 million during the next five years to develop and test novel systems to advance core public health missions, such as detection and response to known and emerging disease threats.

Cooperation among public health agencies and health-care organizations will be critical for the COE’s success. The center will involve a partnership of many of the major health-care players in the Intermountain area, including the University of Utah, the Utah Department of Health, Salt Lake Valley Health Department, Davis County Health Department, Intermountain Healthcare, ARUP Laboratories, and Denver Health. To make it a truly “Rocky Mountain Center,” the COE will bring investigators and public health agencies from Colorado together with Utahans.

“This funding award recognizes the partnerships between many different agencies that have characterized public health informatics research and practice in Utah,” said Matthew H. Samore, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine and the director of the Informatics, Decision-Enhancement and Surveillance Center at the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health System, who will be the COE director. “Technological strategies usually fail without cooperation,” he said. “In Utah, a framework of trust exists that allows organizations and individuals to work together in support of health-care initiatives.”

The University of Utah is a national leader in health informatics – the use of information gathered from electronic medical records and other sources to combat disease and improve public health – and will use that multidisciplinary expertise to help the state and country better prepare to track and stop epidemics. New communicable disease threats such as H1N1 flu and West Nile virus have heightened concerns about the public health reporting system in the event of an outbreak or epidemic. The ultimate goal of these projects is to foster communication and facilitate the exchange of information, allowing public health departments, health-care facilities, clinical laboratories, health-care providers, and schools to share critical information about disease outbreaks.

Joyce A. Mitchell, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and head of the new COE’s steering committee, said the grant is a tribute to the research in public health informatics that has taken place at the U of U since the 2002 Winter Olympics. “Research here has produced practical implications that, when implemented, impact public health in a real way,” Mitchell said. “We have a Center of Excellence that has produced work of national significance.”

Leading public health epidemiologists in state or local health departments will play key roles in the COE. Robert Rolfs, M.D., M.P.H., Utah Director for Disease Control and Prevention and state epidemiologist, Ilene Risk, MPA, the Salt Lake Valley Bureau Manager of Epidemiology, and Brian Hatch, MPH, REHS, Davis County Communicable Disease & Epidemiology Division director, will help translate the research findings into practical uses and benefits for public health.

“Enhancing our use of information to improve the detection of disease, investigate causes of health and illness, and improve our ability to prevent disease is critical to the future of public health,” Rolfs said. “It is a tremendous and exciting opportunity for state and local public health agencies to work with the University, IHC, CDC, and all the other partners to make Utah a leader in making that future a reality.”