The low-code remedy for public health IT

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Low-code development gives public health IT experts a powerful tool to respond to new crises quickly and develop the platforms they need to collect and use data to improve community wellness.

People who complain that “the government” (as if it were a monolithic entity), should be as efficient as private businesses don’t understand that federal, state and local government agencies face challenges most companies could never overcome.  

Besides scaling services to hundreds of millions of people, governments are required to comply with complex legislation unlike anything most for-profit businesses deal with. And, of course, budget constraints often keep government agencies behind the curve when it comes to staffing and resources—especially for IT.  

The good news is that agencies can deploy technology faster than ever before with low code, the increasingly popular approach to app development in which users can define application logic in an easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI). The low-code revolution is already in full swing in the private sector: By 2024, nearly two-thirds of all development is expected to use this approach. For understaffed, overburdened government agencies, this low-code revolution can’t come soon enough.  

Public health departments, for example, don’t have the luxury of waiting months (or years) for new platforms to become available. New health crises like COVID-19 appear suddenly and require an immediate response, which is almost impossible with aging digital tools and paper-based systems still common in many state and local public health departments. Now, with the low-code revolution knocking on public health’s door, agencies have a chance to close the gap with private business and deploy solutions as quickly as their corporate counterparts. 

To meet operational demands, health department IT teams typically build or modify their own programs from scratch, an approach that heavily burdens limited code development resources. With a low-code application platform in their tool stack, however, health agency IT teams can quickly digitize key processes such as data collection and case management. LCAPs also make it easy to get end users—the people who will actually use the applications—directly involved in app development, allowing non-technical users to define much of the application logic themselves using the platform’s GUI. In places where the LCAP can’t generate the underlying code automatically, developers can often quickly fill in the gaps with simple, declarative statements. 

The prospect of overcoming multiple major roadblocks—overburdened development resources, long development cycles, misaligned priorities between dev teams and end users—is an exciting one. But any public IT pro worth the title will have plenty of questions before even considering a new tool.  

Ensuring the security of protected health information, for instance, is a concern that most businesses don’t have to worry about. And it’s true that historically, low-code application platforms (LCAPs), not being designed with public health in mind, have been unable to meet health departments’ robust security needs. 

That’s all changing, however, with the introduction of public health LCAPs. These platforms not only maintain HIPAA compliance, but they account for the other distinct needs of public health departments—like hybrid and multicloud environments. Most public health agencies are in the process of migrating much of their data to the cloud, but they continue to leverage a mixture of on-premise and cloud environments. Data silos similarly need not be a concern, with public health LCAPs offering the flexibility to automate collecting data from various sources. In this way, LCAPs built with public health department considerations in mind offer the robust features those agencies need.  

All this is welcome news for a public health sector that’s under massive pressure to react to sudden changes in real time. In a world where building tools and apps often takes years, it has been impossible to create data systems and deploy them quickly enough to maximize the health of the population. Low-code development gives public health IT experts a powerful tool to respond to new crises quickly and develop the platforms they need to collect and use data to improve community wellness. A shift to low-code development provides a powerful weapon for accelerating the creation of critical new technologies in the fight against communicable diseases and other public health issues.  

Ted Hill is a senior vice president at SSG, where he specializes in digital transformation and interoperability in the public health sector.

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