Public health embarks on several innovative projects

GUELPH – Chair George Bridge called it “innovation week” at Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH).

Three reports were presented to the board of health on May 1 showing how the health unit is using artificial intelligence, digital devices and online learning platforms to add efficiency and better responses in performing its duties.

In his report, manager of data analytics Julian Martalog outlined five projects the health unit is undertaking:

– transitioning to a more flexible tool for generating Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA) notices;

– continued strengthening of data governance and its relation to the application of artificial intelligence (AI);

– adoption of an AI platform to streamline development of new automation and machine learning applications;

– continued development and expansion of WDGPH’s open-source initiative; and

– partnerships to expand use of WDGPH’s Chatbot, and opportunities for monitoring emerging public health concerns using AI.

Public health is charged with ensuring student immunization records are up to date under the ISPA. 

It maintains immunization records, issues notices for overdue vaccinations, and helps families catch up on missing vaccinations.

“[Public health units] must ensure compliance with ISPA, which involves considerable administrative effort to track and communicate with families about their children’s vaccination status,” Martalog stated in his report.

For the 2023/24 school year, WDGPH moved away from the rigid provincial tool for generating ISPA notices and instead used available data in combination with an internally built document generation tool.

By doing this, WDGPH was able to add information about hepatitis B (Hep B) and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines that are offered to students in Grade 7 but are not mandatory.

WDGPH sent out 12,000 immunization notices and found the new system:

– resulted in more comprehensive data collection, including the non-mandated vaccines;

– allowed staff to include more than the mandated vaccines in its data collection;

– offered more complete health records for people; and

– gave the health unit complete control over messaging.

“The success of this initiative has led to adoption of similar technical approaches for enhancing operational efficiency and communication in other public health processes,” Martalog wrote.

The agency is also being more intentional about the data it collects and how it is shared in-house and with external agencies.

Using AI

For the past year, WDGPH has been piloting an AI platform based on an open-source project called Kubeflow, Martalog wrote.

The health unit has a high volume of data needs; this system allows the agency to get real-time data when it needs it.

It is sharing data it collects on wastewater surveillance – specifically COVID-19 data it continues to collect – plus well water test data and vaccination history.

This data can be shared with universities for research studies and other health units for collaborative projects and approaches for emerging health concerns.

WDGPH is also using Chatbot to answer questions from the public.

Because of the integrated technology, information flow is continuous. Any new information can be updated on the website, Chatbot, and what is sent to and from public health nurses on the ground, all at the same time.

This kind of information can also be sent to family health teams, school boards and levels of government when necessary.

Medical officer of health Dr. Nicola Mercer said WDGPH was the authority during the pandemic, with all local agencies, levels of government and residents looking to them for the latest information.

She said she is very excited with the innovations and how they will improve the flow of accurate information, both inside and outside the agency, she said.

Another innovation report was around digital hand-held devices for public health inspections.

Digital devices

A 2023 pilot project involved 246 inspections of 175 vendors at 22 special events by 18 public health inspectors. Inspections occurred between April and November of 2023.

Inspectors found the devices useful in improving processes and data analysis and WDGPH has moved to using mobile devices for all special event vendor inspections this year.

Online learning

And finally, WDGPH is introducing an online learning platform to streamline training for health professionals and community members.

It will allow training programs to be free, geographically accessible and allow for asynchronous learning. It also supports data collection.

“Initial offerings include free courses on managing recreational pools and spas and personal service settings tailored to specific community and professional needs,” states health protection operations director Phil Wong in his report.

Wong said in the future WDGPH will be able to offer a wide array of courses and potentially diversion programs for youth using tobacco and vape products, as well.

The board received the reports for information.