Building the Public Health Data Superhighway

America needs – and expects – faster, better health data. Health data is used to monitor disease levels to recognize changes that may signal a threat, and identifies health trends that help make faster public health decisions and protect the public from further illness. Unfortunately, our system is outdated and relies on manual, paper-based methods of data exchange. Combating public health threats such as measles, fentanyl-linked overdose deaths, and vaping involves effective response and prevention efforts that rely on a strong, timely public health surveillance system.

Gathering and exchanging data is the foundation of public health surveillance. Protecting the public’s health requires an interconnected enterprise that facilitates health data collection, transmission, exchange, and analysis to inform effective and efficient public health responses. Health care is moving slowly toward full adoption of more advanced databases. Two of the most dramatic changes in contemporary IT architectures are the rise of the cloud for processing and storing data, and the modernization of data management tools to accommodate unstructured data and open-source technologies.

Unfortunately, the nation’s public health surveillance system is falling behind the advances seen in clinical settings. Currently, data sharing between public health and clinicians largely depends on time-consuming manual and paper-based methods and processes. Slow data sharing often results in delayed detection and response, lost time, lost opportunities, and lost lives. For example, in some states there is no system to electronically share test results from the public health laboratory to epidemiologists that need to provide follow-up to people that might be sick.[1] In some instances, an epidemiologist will drive to the public health laboratory twice per week to physically pick up lab reports and bring them back to the health department for manual data entry.[2] As a result, real-time data are not exchanged, creating a traffic jam of information. Health data modernization is needed in order to avoid relying on paper-based methods to exchange data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is dedicated to unlocking the full potential of data for disease detection, response, and prevention. CDC’s Public Health Data and IT Transformation Initiative is a comprehensive, cross-cutting effort to prioritize data by modernizing tools, technology, strategy, and culture.[3] This initiative supports public health surveillance, research and, decision making by addressing the timeliness and quality of data, coordinating across partners and systems, and integrating new technologies. Additionally, Congress recognizes the importance of modernizing public health data systems. The Fiscal Year 2020 House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education legislation makes a significant investment to improve the long-term capacity of Federal, state, and local public health systems. The bill begins a multi-year initiative to modernize public health data capacity at CDC and its public health partners at the state and local levels. A new investment of $100 million in the first year will start to move our public health surveillance system away from antiquated, manual data reporting to a common, electronic data superhighway that will enable public health to use real-time data to predict and prevent public health threats.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) recently introduced the “Lower Health Care Costs Act” (S. 1895), legislation to prevent surprise medical bills, reduce prescription drug prices, improve transparency in health care, invest in public health and improve health information exchange. This bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to award grants to state and local public health departments to expand and modernize public health data systems to improve data collection and requires CDC to update and improve public health data systems used by the agency. Additionally, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Angus King, Jr. (I-ME), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced S. 1793, “The Savings Lives Through Better Data Act” in June. This legislation establishes a grant program for the purpose of public health data system modernization.

The commitment to transform today’s public health data system will make a lasting, positive impact on Americans’ health.

[1] Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. (2019). Driving Public Health in the Fast Lane: The Urgent Need for a 21st Century Data Superhighway. Retrieved from:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Public Health Data Modernization Initiative. (2019). Retrieved from:

Stay in the know

Sign up for CRD updates by email and never miss a post.