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Catherine Staes, BSN, MPH, PhD

Current Affiliation

Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Informatics, School of Medicine, University of Utah; Informatics Researcher, Knowledge Based System, Office of Informatics and Analytics, Veterans Administration


BS, Nursing, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
MPH, Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Baltimore
PhD, Medical Informatics, University of Utah School of Medicine

How do I describe my work to those outside the field

I explain that informatics involves the use of computers to provide decision support for medicine and public health. For example, I ask people outside the field to think about electronic health records and how we can use the information in those records to improve the way we do public health surveillance, such as to identify people with diseases that need to be reported to health departments, which in turn enables public health departments to do what is necessary to control disease. I also explain that we can use clinical decision support to make things happen in the healthcare setting that are good for individuals but also in the best interest of public health.

Years of experience:

10 plus years in informatics.

Before launching into informatics though, I had an adventurous career as a public health epidemiologist, was a Commissioned Officer (Lieutenant Commander) in the US Public Health Service, and  was an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I worked in settings ranging from rural Mississippi and the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the Navajo Reservation and in Kotzebue, Alaska above the Arctic Circle. 

Why Informatics? 

I knew there had to be a better way. In the 1980s and 90s, I worked for 15 years as a nurse and public health epidemiologist investigating outbreaks, working on public health surveillance, and doing research studies. I was basically running around collecting lots of data and putting data on pieces of paper and coming up with a p-value and publishing a manuscript, and then all the data went into a box for storage. I wanted to flip it and do the opposite: rather than collect lots of data that came up with one answer, I wanted to come up with one system that could generate lots of answers. Instead of a lot of info with only one output, I want systems that can produce lots of outputs.

What are your ambitions? At the end of your career, what do you hope to have accomplished?

To have made a dent in the prickly problem of standardizing clinical information so it can be used for multiple purposes.

To increase awareness of the idea that public health can benefit from informatics and electronic health records, so that information gathering can be more efficient. I think all epidemiologists should have a knowledge of informatics. Just a few weeks ago we responded to the curriculum revisions that were being made by the schools of public health and absolutely believe that informatics training should be included in all public health and epidemiology training. It’s just crazy to me that this is not currently the case. There are thousands of MPH students graduating every year and they land in health departments without an appreciation of informatics. So that is a goal that I have – to see informatics training become a core competency for public health epidemiologists.

On a personal level, I hope to mentor students and teach them to write and to give them an appreciation for the value of what they are doing as it can be applied to benefit the health of populations.

Who or what are your “key sources” in the informatics field?

As a faculty member at the University of Utah , a researcher with the Office of Informatics and Analytics at the Veterans Administration, and a consultant for the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues who are doing innovative work. I’m constantly introduced to new ideas and have colleagues to bounce ideas off of. And then, of course, JAMIA.

Articles that spotlight my research interest

Hobbies/Interests outside AMIA

Just being outdoors, hiking and skiing and being unplugged from the computer. I live in a beautiful part of the country where the mountains are basically outside my back door.

AMIA is important to me because

It provides me with professional guidance and resources, and collegiality that I really appreciate. Also, it provides opportunities for my students, such as honing their writing skills by serving on the JAMIA editorial board.

I am involved with AMIA

Currently, I serve on the editorial board of JAMIA and I am the AMIA liaison for the Joint Public Health Informatics Task force (JPHIT), a coalition of national public health associations. In the past, I directed the 10x10 course offered by our department.

It may surprise people to know

I can ride a unicycle, which is actually a pretty useless thing to know how to do.  It can be entertaining though and surprisingly relevant to my career.  I once rode in a 4th of July parade and someone yelled out, "Hey look at the one-wheeled bicycle."  When I look in clinical records for data relevant for quality measures or birth or case reporting, I see lots of "one-wheeled bicycles"!