U researchers receive grants for disease prevention

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

U researchers were awarded $4.37 million in grants for funding to collaborate with the Utah Department of Health to help improve the communication and decision-making within the public health care setting.

The U is one of four sites of the Centers of Excellence in Public Health Informatics that is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This highly competitive grant gives the schools about $1 million to fund various projects. The U was selected because the strong collaboration between academic and clinical worlds makes the research relevant to the real world. The other new sites will be located at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Indiana University and the University of Pittsburgh.

“We have amazing researchers and really strong relations with local and state offices that allow us to do this research,” said Amyanne Wuthrich, research assistant in the division of clinical epidemiology. “They are all pulling together to do this research. It wouldn’t be possible without them.”

Each of the sites will have two five-year projects of varying focuses in the health care system. Projects from the various sites include improving how information is communicated to enhance detection and response to health threats developing in the public. Although researchers will work separately for both projects, they will collaborate on common goals for national health priorities, Wuthrich said.

The funding for the U is a renewal of a three-year grant, which ended Aug. 31, that focused on developing models to electronically send case reports from a health care setting to a public health care office. Before this project, timely and inefficient paper forms were used. The new system would allow public health researchers to communicate information efficiently about diseases between the local and state levels.

“We learned a lot from the first project,” said Catherine Staes, an assistant professor in the U biomedical informatics department. “We’re taking information from the first project and using new models, applying new methods to old problems to improve efficiency and explore areas in order to make them better.”

Researchers for one part of the new five-year project will be working on improving communication between public health administrations, laboratories, clinics and the community. This will allow for a more accurate disease surveillance, investigation and control of health threats to the community, Staes said.

Since the first paper systems were put in place, advances in technology were not available to the public, Staes said. Researchers will be essentially taking old problems and applying them in new models.

These new models will be developed in a second project that will use simulations of how a disease will spread to help public health administrators make decisions of the best way to control the disease. The system was used to visually analyze data from public health cases to examine the occurrence of cases to figure out how they spread, said Matthew Samore, professor in the division of clinical epidemiology.

For example, they will be able to see how closing a school would affect the spread of the disease or, conversely, what would happen if they did nothing. These simulations will allow them to make better decisions as to what to do for the community. In the early stages of the project, the researchers will simulate food-borne disease outbreaks and will later move on to controlling outbreaks of West Nile virus.

“There is a need to be able to prevent and control diseases in populations now that are not as timely, inefficient, and use a lot of resources,” Staes said.

[email protected]