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What is Innovation in Public Health? 

Innovation in public health refers to the development of a new process, policy, product, or program that increases quality, impact, and efficiency.

Now is the time for innovation in public health. Emerging public health threats require rapid response, as illustrated with Zika virus-induced birth defects, the opioid epidemic, and the increase in number and type of natural disasters. 

Effective interventions require cross-sector partnership, and the rapidly changing context for health care delivery means that health departments must be nimble for partnerships across public health and health care sectors to be effective. Innovation may help health departments address these emerging threats and make the most of new opportunities for collaboration.

A variety of common challenges pose barriers to innovation in governmental public health, not the least of which have been repeated budget cuts. In addition, many public health departments have outmoded technology or have policies that restrict their ability to use social media and other modern communication methods. Moreover, many departments have tremendous amounts of data, but they are buried in silos created by traditional government funding requirements for compliance in separate processes and databases.

Despite these challenges, there are bright spots in innovation in public health, with emerging innovations that are picked up and adapted and adopted by other departments. Emerging technologies are continually changing the way people communicate and how other industries operate, and these 21st century changes need to be incorporated into public health. 

Public health practice must be transformed in order to remain relevant, improve people’s lives, and ensure that funds are used in the most efficient and effective manner. Public health must innovate and modernize the ways of practice.

PHNCI, with input from many others in public health and in the innovations arena, has described the following characteristics of innovation that are absolutely critical for an activity or product to be considered innovative: 

  • Is novel, new, or creative;
  • Reflects the dynamic state of change inherent in public health transformation;
  • Occurs by internal or cross-sector collaboration;
  • Involves co-production of the process, policy, product, or program with partners, stakeholders, and/or customers;
  • Has the potential to generate a new or improved means to create value;
  • Lends itself to adaptation and adoption/replication and diffusion;
  • Generates real-time information for evaluation and course correction; and
  • If related to technology, uses open-source technology (i.e., the technology is in the public domain) so as to facilitate adaption and adoption/replication.

Innovations are one step in transforming governmental public health practice. The journey to transformation can be conceptualized as practices that move along three points on a spectrum: from emerging, to leading, and ultimately prevailing. 

Marking the beginning of transformation,“emerging” practices are public health innovations. They come from one or a small group of health departments and/or other agencies, and are brand new to the field. 

Leading practices are innovations that have been adapted and adopted or perhaps replicated by other health departments and/or other agencies. Although no longer considered innovative, they are not recognized as the usual way of doing business. Leading practices are widely viewed as best practices, and an increasing number of health departments are likely to emulate them. 

Finally, prevailing practices are those that are accepted and are in play throughout the public health practice community. They are no longer considered leading practices because they have been diffused throughout the public health practice community.

As an innovation first emerges, it may be transformative for the health department that develops the practice. If the health department is not the leader of the innovation, the health department should be
performing a major role in the innovations work. As evidence of the effectiveness of an innovation
grows and it becomes a leading practice, and ultimately is recognized as a prevailing practice, it can transform the field of public health.

To learn more on how to foster a culture that creates innovation and aligns with performance management in your health department download our Innovation in Governmental Public Health Roadmap.