Big Strides in Community-Level Interventions at Health Datapalooza

Jun 10, 2014, 2:38 PM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Paul Tarini, Susan Dentzer, Dwayne Spradlin, Greg Downing, and David Vockell discuss harnessing data for health on an RWJF First Friday Hangout

As co-chair of the Community Track at this year’s Health Datapalooza conference, I was impressed by the strong sense of purpose I felt among the attendees. The conversation has clearly moved from the abstract concepts of gathering and accessing data, to how we can use that data to solve real-world challenges. The launch of a new network to bring together researchers, scientists and companies and accelerate research using personal health data, led by the Health Data Exploration project with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was one of many efforts designed to directly improve our understanding of health through the wise use of data.

The momentum is coming from widespread reports of successful programs, from research showing improved clinical outcomes to communities solving health issues with these new tools. In Chicago, for example, the Department of Public Health has developed a clever way to target their food safety inspections. Working with a hacker collective, the department developed a system for scraping local Twitter feeds for terms that correlate with foodborne illness. Then they direct message those folks, asking victims of food poisoning to fill out a form that helps the department target its inspections.

It can take years for official public health data to be released, and by that point, it’s no longer useful. At Datapalooza, there was a wealth of discussion about “guerrilla style” data gathering to help officials and community members make better, more timely decisions. In Boston they are addressing the problem of drug overdoses, using rapid data harvesting to target resources in real time. Realizing that 911 was called in more than 90% of overdoses, the city’s Department of Public Health began asking ambulance drivers to report the locations of drug-related emergencies. Is the data messy? Yes, but it’s good enough to help address immediate health threats by identifying clusters of overdoses and responding in real time with public education campaigns and undercover drug buys that result in being able to analyze these drugs.

There was also a recognition that using data to improve community health needs to be done not only at the community level, but in partnership with the communities. In particular, these neighborhood-level groups need granular and timely data presented in ways that are accessible and acceptable to the folks who live there.

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places NC initiative is a great example of this. They are listening to the needs of rural counties in North Carolina with major health disparities, and using data to bring people together around solutions. In one county, for example, many of the patients using the emergency room would have been better served at a primary care facility. The solution they came up with—building a health clinic right across the hall from the ER—was a success because it came from the community and was supported by strong data analysis.

Going forward, there is a real need to expand the capacity of organizations across the country to use these types of tools in order to build a Culture of Health. We need more people who are fluent in data analytics leveraging these insights across disciplines, boundaries and perspectives. For instance, what role could health data play in other civic planning efforts, such as designing transportation systems?

Let me know how you think health data might bring about positive changes in your community in the comments. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.