How public health agencies can navigate HIPAA to integrate data-driven chronic disease interventions

Doctor typing on laptop
Data buried in EHRs are a vital resource for public health agencies that also have to navigate applicable privacy laws. (Getty/shironosov)

Utilizing data housed in EHR systems has become a critical function for public health agencies looking to make an impact on pockets of chronic disease within a community or state.

As those agencies explore opportunities to integrate high-quality patient data into outreach efforts, they also have to navigate longstanding privacy requirements outlined under HIPAA. In a report (PDF) released by the deBeaumont Foundation and Johns Hopkins University, public health researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Michigan School of Public Health recommended state and local agencies first identify key public health issues to prioritize. The resulting outcome serves as a blueprint to determine what patient data is necessary while accounting for privacy regulations.

By sketching out six use cases associated with reducing the burden of childhood asthma, the researchers explained what datasets may be necessary to uncover hot-spots within a community and what data is legally permissible for health systems to share for the purposes of public health analysis and outreach.

“Because of the rapid growth in adoption of these technologies across medicine, access to electronic health data offers an opportunity for a leap forward in data access to address community health challenges,” the researchers wrote.

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Clearly identifying helpful data sets and articulating that to provider partners helps smooth the process of obtaining useful data. Using admission, diagnosis, discharge and insurance information can help public health agencies identify household conditions that are triggering childhood asthma and identify patient that could benefit from follow-up interventions or home visits.

Researchers have pointed to EHRs as an untapped public health resource that can be used to track diabetes, hypertension, smoking and obesity. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said it plans to improve public health data collection by accessing EHR data and moving its databases to the cloud.

In the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s annual meeting last week, one CDC administrator said the CDC has done some “soul searching” following he Ebola outbreak and rethought its approach to data-sharing.

Meanwhile, Nemours Children’s Health System recently rolled out its own approach to childhood asthma, using digital tools and home monitoring equipment to provide patients with more on-demand support.