The Role of Biostatistics and Informatics in Public Health

We are deluged with information and statistics via clinical trials, observational and longitudinal studies, and genomics at any given moment. But it’s what we choose to do with this information that makes it valuable in the realm of public health, which is why biostatisticians and similar professionals skilled in the art of biostatistics and informatics are in such high demand.

Both biostatistics and informatics involve translating data into meaningful information that can then be used to make logical and beneficial public health decisions.

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What is Biostatistics?

Biostatistics is the branch of statistics responsible for interpreting the scientific data that is generated in the health sciences, including the public health sphere. It is the responsibility of biostatisticians and other experts to consider the variables in subjects (in public health, subjects are usually patients, communities, or populations), to understand them, and to make sense of different sources of variation.

In essence, the goal of biostatistics is to disentangle the data received and make valid inferences that can be used to solve problems in public health. Biostatistics uses the application of statistical methods to conduct research in the areas of biology, public health, and medicine. Many times, experts in biostatistics collaborate with other scientists and researchers.

Biostatistics has made major contributions to our understanding of countless public health issues, such as:

  • Chronic diseases
  • Cancer
  • Human growth and development
  • The relationship between genetics and the environment
  • AIDS
  • Environmental health (the impact and monitoring of)

Biostatistics is integral to the advancement of knowledge, not only in public health policy, but also in biology, health policy, clinical medicine, health economics, genomics, proteomics, and a number of other disciplines.

The Role of Biostatisticians

Biostatisticians are said to be the specialists of data evaluation, as it is their expertise that allows them to take complex, mathematical findings of clinical trials and research-related data and translate them into valuable information that is used to make public health decisions. The work of biostatisticians is also required in government agencies and legislative offices, where research is often used to influence change at the policy-making level.

In short, these professionals use mathematics to enhance science and bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Biostatisticians are required to develop statistical methods for clinical trials, observational studies, longitudinal studies, and genomics:

  • Clinical trials: Studying the evaluation of treatments, screening, and prevention methods in populations
  • Epidemiological: Studying the causes and origins of disease in humans
  • Human Genetics: Studying the genetic differences associated with diseases and disease states
  • Genomics: Studying the biological activity of genes as they relate to diseases and treatments
  • Spatial Studies: Studying the geographical distribution of disease/risk factors

Although the work of these scientists is complex, their responsibilities include:

  • Designing and conducting experiments related to health, emergency management, and safety
  • Collecting and analyzing data to improve current public health programs and identify problems and solutions in the public health sector
  • Interpreting the results of their findings

The validity of their research results depends on how well they can make meaningful generalizations and how well they can reproduce and apply experimental methods.

What is Informatics?

Informatics, which is actually an emerging field, is also known as bioinformatics, a science that relies on the basic disciplines of science, mathematics, probability and statistics, and computer science to build a solid statistical foundation for making advances, improvements, and even breakthroughs in public health and medicine.

Health informatics is often said to meet at the intersection of information science, computer science, and healthcare, as it deals with the resources, devices, and methods required for the effective storage, use, and retrieval of information, while public health informatics includes the application of informatics in public health areas, such as surveillance, prevention, preparedness, and health promotion. Public health informatics focuses on information and technology issues from the perspective of groups of individuals.

Naturally, health informatics tools would include computers, making systems analysts important members of public health informatics research teams. It is the responsibility of expert informaticists to systematically apply information, computer science, and technology into research, learning, and the practice of public health.

The Role of Systems Analysts in Informatics

Systems analysts are called upon to write and troubleshoot the software used by biostatisticians and researchers. Their work may also include conducting their own research, designing databases, and developing algorithms for processing and analyzing information.

The main responsibilities of systems analysts in biostatistics and informatics include:

  • Incorporating bioinformatics/biostatistics into efficient and automated data analysis tools
  • Developing and tracking quality workflow metrics for detecting variants and sequences
  • Working with scientists and researchers to develop project plans


Specializing the Master of Public Health (MPH) in Biostatistics and Informatics

Biostatisticians often complete their undergraduate degree in math or biology, while systems analysts often complete their undergraduate studies in a computer science program that is focused on bioinformatics and scientific computing.

Because a master’s degree is the minimum requirement in many clinical, academic, and governmental research positions, many professionals in biostatistics and informatics choose to pursue graduate work through the completion of a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree.

The Master of Public Health (MPH) has long been the gold standard for professionals in the public health sector, as many public health schools offer MPH specializations in biostatistics and/or informatics.

MPH programs are typically broken down by:

  • Public health courses, which include the major disciplines of the field, including:
  • Community health sciences
  • Environmental and occupational health sciences
  • Epidemiology
  • Biostatistics
  • Principles of public health management
  • Courses in the MPH specialty
  • A field practicum: Often includes working with an approved organization or agency
  • A capstone project

Master of Public Health in Informatics

The MPH in Informatics teaches students how to design, develop, and manage public health information systems.

An MPH in Informatics prepares students by providing them with:

  • The principles of public health and public health informatics
  • The definitions and standards of health data
  • Structure and uses of public health databases and networks
  • Applications of the basic functions and operations of public health information technologies
  • Strategies for developing or adapting pubic health-related information systems
  • Planning and managing objectives and standards for public health information systems projects
  • The uses of public health informatics applications, public geographic information systems, and data mining

Some of the courses taken in an MPH in Informatics program include:

  • Health information and decision support systems
  • Development of public health surveillance information systems
  • Legal and ethical issues in public health informatics
  • Public health information systems evaluation and project management
  • Web-based public health information systems
  • Geographic information systems applications in public health
  • Data mining applications in public health


Master of Public Health in Biostatistics

A Master of Public Health in Biostatistics is designed for students who want to focus their graduate work on biostatistics and analysis. Students in this MPH graduate program are exposed to a variety of statistical methods and their applications in public health. Coursework and the subsequent capstone project are typically focused on designing, collecting, managing, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting data.

Graduates of an MPH in Biostatistics program are prepared to:

  • Specify and produce valid study designs
  • Perform database management and produce working tables and statistical summaries
  • Analyze data in terms of stated hypotheses
  • Generate new hypotheses
  • Properly interpret study results

Coursework in an MPH in Biostatistics includes:

  • Applied biostatistics
  • Database design and management
  • Statistical consulting
  • Applied survival and longitudinal analysis
  • Design of clinical trials
  • Analytical epidemiology
  • Statistical theory
  • Research methods in epidemiology

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