Public health, runs a popular joke, is the poor cousin of the general health system in Canada.

That joke has lost some of its zing thanks to a whopping $100 million investment in public health technologies announced by Canada Health Infoway last week.

Infoway is a federal government organization with a mandate to accelerate the development of compatible electronic health information systems across Canada. Infoway works with the federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions to implement electronic health care systems.

The organization’s $100 million bonanza is expected to provide a much-needed shot-in-the-arm to public health surveillance across Canada.

The funds will be used improve the ability of public health professionals to respond to public health threats and outbreaks of communicable diseases, like SARS.

The Integrated Public Health Information System (iPHIS), the Infoway statement says, will be a principal beneficiary of the new funding. (iPHIS is pan-Canadian, Internet-based client management system used between jurisdictions to manage their cases of communicable diseases).

Many details of the Infoway disbursement remain unclear.

The ramifications of investment are still up in the air, according to Ron Sussey, a senior project advisor with Health Canada’s Information Technology Management Section. Sussey works on the iPHIS project.

He said it isn’t clear yet how the funds will be divvied up between jurisdictions. “We are just waiting to see what Infoway’s angle [on that] is. I believe – optimist that am – that in a few months it will all (be sorted) out.”

An Infoway spokesperson told IT World Canada that of the total outlay, $30 million would be used to develop the Public Health Surveillance System, while the remaining $70 million would be disbursed to various jurisdictions.

But disbursement will not be automatic. Program director for Public Health Surveillance Tim Beasley said jurisdictions would first need to decide which pan-Canadian initiatives they want to develop and approach Infoway with that information.

The $100 million investment represents a part of the total funds Infoway is making available to public health initiatives.

By the end of March, the federal body expects to commit a total of $260 million to approximately 100 projects in every Canadian province.

Infoway’s keeps its pulse on the public health environment across Canada through a pan-Canadian Public Health Communicable Disease Surveillance and Management Steering Committee.

The committee includes both senior public health decision makers and CIOs from all federal, provincial and territorial ministries of health.