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U of U to Lead $4.5 Million Center of Excellence Grant to Improve Public Health Response to Disease Outbreaks

January 9, 2007 — The University of Utah has received a three-year $4.5 million Center of Excellence (COE) grant to study how the public health system can better prepare and respond to communicable disease outbreaks and other public health problems.

The University is one of the three new centers the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded in public health informatics. Utah’s center is led by Matthew H. Samore, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the U School of Medicine and director of the Informatics, Decision-Enhancement and Surveillance Center at the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health System. Improving the way health information is reported by numerous sources and then analyzed by public health officials will be a major focus of the center.

The University is a national leader in health informatics-the use of information gathered from electronic medical records and other sources to combat communicable disease and improve public health-and will use that multidisciplinary expertise to help the state and country better prepare to track and stop epidemics. The ramifications of the project go beyond Utah, according to Samore, also adjunct professor of biomedical informatics and family and preventive medicine.

“This is not just about Utah,” he said. “This will help the nation and, ultimately, the world in fighting disease.”

The University will establish the COE in the School of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. Academic departments across campus will participate, including geography; psychology; family and preventive medicine; pediatrics; and internal medicine. The Utah Department of Health, local health districts throughout the state, the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health System, and Intermountain Health are taking part, as well.

Utah Department of Health director David Sundwall, M.D., said health informatics can be a critical tool in monitoring public health and detecting epidemics. “Informatics is a major concept that will take us out of the Dark Ages in medical recording and guide us into the future,” Sundwall said. “We’re eager to work with the University on this project.”

The threat of new communicable diseases such as avian flu and West Nile virus heightened concerns about the public health reporting system in the event of an outbreak or epidemic. One COE project, co-led by University of Utah cognitive psychologist Frank Drews, will address how the public health system responds to such threats and how epidemiologists use information for public health decision making.

With the aid of computer scientists and mathematicians at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and University of Michigan, the U of U researchers will develop tools for timely, accurate tracking and analysis of disease surveillance data. As part of the project, they’ll use computer simulations of the Wasatch Front population to look at the demographics, lifestyle, and ways a disease could be transmitted within that group of people.

Another of the COE’s initiatives, led University of Utah pediatrics professor Carrie Byington, M.D., will tackle the problem of inefficient communication between clinicians and public health workers. Tracking and profiling epidemics is difficult because of the piecemeal way information is collected and reported. This COE project will test a system for electronic communication designed to facilitate reporting and reduce response time to vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough.

“The cumbersome nature of exchanging information inhibits reporting and delays investigation,” Samore said. “If information gets to public health officials sooner, they can detect and respond to a communicable disease much faster.”

Two other investigators will play key roles in the COE. Wu Xu, Ph.D., director of the state Office of Health Care Statistics, and Robert Rolfs, M.D., M.P.H., Utah state epidemiologist, will help translate the research findings into practical uses and benefits for public health.

Cooperation among health-care agencies and organizations will be critical for the COE’s success. There’s a good supply of that, according to Samore.

“Technological strategies will 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 such as this one.”