Wicked public health problems demand the courage to jump across disciplines

Wicked public health problems demand the courage to jump across disciplines
May 24, 2022
Public health crises do not relent while society searches for solutions. We need new tools, and new ways of working, to meet the moment. 

Public health experts bring critical understanding and insight to the most urgent and impactful challenges of our time. But to make real progress—toward improving the mental health crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, the devastating health effects of climate change, and many other issues—experts need to make bold moves.

It is becoming increasingly critical that public health experts, who typically have deep knowledge in hyperspecific niches, collaborate with experts who bring to the table a diverse array of skill sets and backgrounds, as well as non-expert constituencies. These partnerships foster the understanding and creativity that spring groundbreaking solutions. In fact, evidence from the public health research domain supports the benefits of interdisciplinary teams for improving patient care, and shows that poor team practices are themselves a public health issue.

However, reaching across disciplines is not easy. There is a natural inclination to stick with the field and the colleagues that are familiar. Interdisciplinary approaches may also upend what are comfortable and long accepted ways of working. For example, a research plan for a classically trained epidemiologist may be to conduct decades-long cohort studies and eventually publish the findings in academic, peer-reviewed journals. Problems like the child and adolescent mental health pandemic, however, require more predictive, interventional, and fast protocols to deliver value to public health policymakers, influence decisions, and urgently support better health outcomes.

Still, diverse subject matter experts (SMEs)—and the organizations they represent—can collaborate, and collaborate effectively, when their reluctance to do so is met by an even greater impatience for bold solutions and a shared belief in the potential of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Partnering with AWS

At ICF, we are embracing interdisciplinary collaboration in the creation of a cloud-based data environment for collocating data with tools and predictive modelling. ICF public health professionals are working in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Envision Engineering group to create an automated solution to import, transform, store, analyze, and use data to run predictive modelling using AWS cloud technology.

The vision for this product is that SMEs will explore, analyze, and visualize the data to develop and shape hypotheses, and the insights they gain will rapidly drive actions and policy decisions. These insights may, for example, help inform the most effective allocation of program funding or placement of school psychologists.

Another essential feature of this offering, which is slated to launch summer 2022, is its accessibility. SMEs from any discipline, as well as non-experts, will be able to interrogate the cloud data without the need for data science expertise, coding skills, or special computational ability; it will be intuitive and easy to navigate. The result is that it will help break down barriers between various constituencies and bring more people into conversations around public health issues. It is created to support and incentivize interdisciplinarity.

The initial use-case focuses on the urgent problem of climate change and creating a more effective tool for studying its impact on health and disease outcomes—and creating forecasts to predict future health outcomes in the coming decades.

Tackling mental health

Public health crises do not relent while society searches for solutions. In the domain of mental health, as many as 20% of people in the U.S. experience mental illness and only about half of them are receiving care, and many wait long periods to do so. Among the most troubling figures is that the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-34 is suicide.

ICF and AWS’s collaboration will support researchers who want to address these challenges. It could be especially transformative for studying mental illness because of the current paucity of data in this field, particularly as compared with the quantity of data available in the biomedical and climate science sectors. The mental health data that do exist are often of variable or low quality and not representative of the general population.

Problems like the child and adolescent mental health pandemic require more predictive, interventional, and fast protocols to deliver value to public health policymakers, influence decisions, and urgently support better health outcomes.

The vision for the ICF-AWS product is that it will serve as a mental health data commons housing datasets that are centralized, open, standardized, credible, and continually expanding and evolving. This commons would enable public health researchers, healthcare practitioners, and other constituencies by connecting these data with tools (e.g., artificial intelligence, machine learning) that allow users to share, integrate, analyze, and visualize mental health research data and discoveries. This could be used, for example, in developing models that predict associations between social media content and mental health outcomes such as suicidal ideation.

CDC BioSense success story

Public health and digital transformation experts at ICF recently collaborated on a project to restructure BioSense for the CDC National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP), which is hosted on AWS. BioSense compiles medical reports submitted by public health departments and healthcare settings on a centralized platform and is a critical resource for health officials, health practitioners, and researchers to detect, monitor, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, addiction crises, and other public health issues across the U.S. But the platform’s outdated infrastructure and tools were not keeping pace with the demands of growing numbers of constituents and rapidly advancing technologies.

Drawing on more than four decades of experience working with government leaders, we partnered with the CDC and states that participate in NSSP to modernize and expand BioSense. The improvements allow for faster data input from healthcare settings and standardization of reporting tools, while also bolstering security measures.

The future is interdisciplinarity

It is not an understatement that today’s public health challenges are putting countless individuals in life-or-death situations. Children are dying at alarming rates because of mental illnesses. Public health experts have dedicated their careers to studying and gaining insight into these challenges. These issues persist not because they lack adequate expertise, but because the timeline and structure of traditional academic research is not conducive to creative solutions that stretch across disciplines.

The key to tackling these issues in meaningful and lasting ways is to broaden the scope of research, to include more representative study populations and more diverse researchers, and speed insights from research into how to improve the urgent problems that are upon us. Achieving this progress requires better data, better access to data, and better tools to analyze the data. All this, in turn, demands that public health experts turn to the skill sets of, and collaborate with, technology experts.

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Meet the author
  1. Andrew Ritcheson, Vice President, Public Health Leader

    Andrew is an expert in supporting complex organizations and leading sophisticated interdisciplinary teams in delivering value and innovation in aid of better health outcomes. View bio

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