Computers and Environmental Health

Download PDF

Almost every activity, from measuring the extent of pollution to operating a food premises inspection programme, depends upon a foundation of accurate, accessible information about both things and people. Without information, political debate and analysis is emasculated. Information
may ‘prove’, or ‘disprove’ that a particular institution discriminates against women in its recruiting policies, that bathing water quality has dis-improved, that too many young people are chasing too few jobs, that hygienic practices benefit the public.

Information is the cornerstone of the environmental health officer’s work. Surveillance of water supplies and sewage disposal facilities, of food processing plants, slaughterhouses, catering establishments, camping sites, housing accommodations, hospitals, schools and institutions, places of public assembly and of employment, swimming pools and bathing areas, was waste disposal sites and any premises requiring investigation for the protection of the public health, requires that
EHO’s deal with large volumes of information from day to day.

To effectively and efficiently fulfil his function the EHO requires not only information on individual premises on a once used basis, he also needs to retain relevant data which may have significance and further applications for the original premises, for a number of premises, for another geographic area or as evidence in court proceedings. Examples of such information would include the location of polluted and non-polluted wells in the area. This data is relevant in assessing the merits of planning proposals relying on well water and also on proposals for sub­ surface sewage disposal facilities. Additionally, information on bathing areas, water intakes, effluent outfalls and septic tank locations have a value in giving an overall indication of environmental health needs. In the food control sphere, evaluation, as with other responsibilities, requires that aggregated data be looked at to measure the level of success and change over time in the conditions that pre- vail in premises.

Our environmental health service is eminently suited to computer applications. The computer is a device in the service of the information process. It permits enormous increases over the capacity of manual systems in the quantities of data that can be processed, collated, stored and retrieved. It centralises this information in electronic data banks. It surpasses human memory by permitting the instantaneous retrieval of countless diverse facts.

Experience gained in computer assisted environmental health inspection services around the world points to very significant advantages and not a few difficulties. Organisational and human factors possibly pose the greatest challenge in the introduction of such systems. The lack of proper communication and involvement of field staff in the design of programmes has been high­ lighted as the most common cause of problems.

Earlier this year the Local Authorities Management Services and Computer Committee, Vincent House, Vincent Square, London SWIP 2NB, published its report Computers and Environmental Health. It is our view that members should familiarise themselves with developments in this important area and for this purpose the Association is devoting a session to computerisation in environmental health.