TEMPLE — Rural health care sometimes faces a bumpy road in Texas, but information critical to improving such care could soon have its own electronic superhighway.
The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Scott and White Hospital in Temple and the Texas Department of Health are developing a system that makes health information data available to anyone needing it. They envision the Texas Rural Public Health Information System as accessible statewide through various technologies and at varying levels of use.
That eventually could mean everyone from rural mothers seeking information on health-care providers to legislators looking for statistics on work-related injuries in any geographic area, said the director for the experiment station’s Blackland Research Center in Temple.
“We have a gold mine of information here,” said Dr. Allan Jones, director of both the Blackland center and its Center for Natural Resources Information and Technology (CNRIT).
“But what we haven’t had is the means of quickly sharing this with the public. What we’re trying to do is begin producing multimedia products that educate and inform people.”
Jones said the Blackland center has traditionally been a leader in the use of research projects involving large databases of weather, soil and other agriculturally related information.
Much of the center’s work has involved the use of geographic information systems and other models that map, analyze and relate agricultural and natural resource data. It works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The center also helped develop CNRIT, formed in 1992 to provide links between research groups and other institutions worldwide that have or need the type of data used in Temple.
In looking for new ways to take advantage of its abilities, the Blackland Center also has formed a partnership with Scott and White, a major regional health care center that is affiliated with the Texas A&M University College of Medicine.
Scott and White has provided a $10,000 grant to help start the information system, which is known by its acronym, TRPHIS.
The system will be a breakthrough in rural health care, said Dr. Beverly Koops, associate commissioner for health care delivery with the Texas Department of Health.
“This kind of partnership and using telecommunications is a real key to removing barriers to improving Texas rural health care,” she said. “One of the big problems we face is having primary care providers working by themselves in isolated areas without access to libraries, tertiary consultants or other sources that can help them stay on top of all the changes in medicine and provide better care.”
The initial working model of TRPHIS was developed by Dr. Raghavan Srinivasan of the Blackland Center, along with the center’s Abeer Al-Naji and Ray Abbott. The model has already been demonstrated to the center’s partner agencies.
It includes text and pictures describing Central Texas health care providers and health education programs. It also contains more than 400 maps of public health, demographic and natural resource data — as varied as vehicle-accident mortality rates, tuberculosis diagnoses and percentages of children living below the poverty level.
The current data comes from various health agencies and is infinitely expandable, said Abbott, a Temple consultant who is working with the center on the system.
Initial demonstrations focused on maps that present information on a certain topic in various ways. For instance, information on Medicare patients can be mapped by regions or counties and broken down by age, race or other factors in many different combinations.
Abbott envisions the system as one that would take any kind of information related to rural public health and living, presenting it in any number of ways, including with pictures, video and sound.
The information would be accessible by home computer, public kiosks, or interactive televisions — means that may not yet be widespread or even commercially available, but are on their way, Abbot said.
Users could choose their own levels of interactivity, from straightforward presentation of facts to analysis of information and prediction of results much like that already done by experiment station scientists.
TRPHIS would obviously depend on the availability and affordability of technology for people to access it, Abbott said. He added that system planning is based on the assumptions that such technology will be widespread and demand will be heavy for information that can be manipulated and presented in many ways.
Building such a system is feasible, but requires long-range thinking, built-in flexibility to allow change and growth, and plans that allow step-by-step progress, he said.
The partnership is first focusing on building a prototype to demonstrate the system’s usefulness to the state’s political and health-care decision makers, whose support will be critical to its growth. TRPHIS and similar systems could be done piecemeal without large amounts of funding for startup, but their success will require steady commitment of time and money from various partners, Abbott said.
However, TRPHIS will be promoted as one with practical use for anybody needing to know anything related to rural public health — from students doing reports to professionals trying to learn about geographic distribution of disease. A long-term goal is to make it available to the entire public, Jones said.
The system may sound like a big dream to some, but in the not- too-distant future, Abbott said, such information systems will be standard.
“It’s not a question of if, but when,” he said.