Communities Are Using a Powerful Tool to Journey Toward Better Health

Jun 27, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by

Communities across the United States are using data to help set goals, measure progress and provide better services that will ultimately improve residents' health.

Illustration showing how data can inform health

“Where have we been? Where are we going? How can we get there?” These are the questions facing communities who want to make health a right, not a privilege, for all of their residents. And they can’t answer these questions without one critical tool: data.

As a former community coach with the Roadmaps to Health Action Center, I was a sounding board, devil’s advocate and cheerleader all in one. I was also a data guru, helping communities use numbers to guide decisions and come together around priorities.

Data is a powerful tool in any community’s work to build a Culture of Health. A good place to start looking for data is the County Health Rankings, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin, because it compiles health stats on nearly every county in the nation. Other sources, such as federal, state and local departments of health, education, labor, and parks and recreation also provide useful statistics. In some cases, I advise communities to consider collecting their own data, either because the information they want isn’t already collected, or because existing sources don’t provide the rich level of detail they need about particular populations or issues.

Here are three ways communities, including those that have won the foundation’s annual Culture of Health Prize, put data to good use:

1. To assess needs and set goals.

In the early stages of building a Culture of Health, communities use data to figure out what goals will best meet their residents’ needs. As they continue their work, they reassess those needs over time to respond to changing conditions within the community.

In The Bronx, New York, a 2015 Culture of Health Prize-winning community, the county’s last-place position in the 2010 County Health Rankings inspired State Senator Gustavo Rivera to team up with the borough’s president, Ruben Diaz Jr., to assess the health disparities plaguing their community and the ways they could begin to recover. Rankings data revealed that just over 40 percent of children in the county lived in poverty and the unemployment rate (7.7 percent) was higher than New York City’s (5.6 percent). In response, the county launched the Bronx Change Attitudes Now Health Initiative and set the wheels in motion towards reducing its poverty and unemployment rates.

Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, a 2015 Prize community, used the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, scale, as a screening tool to measure traumatic experiences to which the community’s children had been exposed. ACEs include emotional or physical abuse, having a parent who went to prison or feeling emotionally unsupported—all of which lead to toxic stress that has long-term effects on the brain and body. When Menominee Nation found many members had scores that indicated high risk of health problems, the tribe decided to take a trauma-informed approach to healing that focused heavily on consistently evaluating the mental and emotional well-being of residents and providing the supports they needed to move toward healing.

2. To inform efforts and measure progress.

I advise communities to use data only after they’ve figured out exactly what it is they want to know. In other words, don’t grab the most readily available data just because it’s there. If one of your goals is increasing graduation rates, then find the data that will tell you whether or not you’re on your way to your goal, or that you’ve reached it. My colleagues and I also encourage communities to use data to evaluate progress and adjust their strategies all along the way.

A 2014 Prize community, Spokane County, Washington, wanted to know: “Why aren’t kids graduating high school?” They learned that truancy was an early warning sign. Rather than suspending or expelling kids who skipped school, educators invited them to talk about what was going on in their lives. Looking at the data alongside students’ insights helped Spokane develop a real-time early-warning system to monitor student attendance and grades, as well as a targeted dropout prevention programs designed to support students, rather than punish them.

3. To promote collaboration and integrate services.

It’s important for community partners to share data to help them work better together. For example, Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 2013 Prize community, had agencies that serve people with high needs sign “data agreements” that enabled them to securely share the information they collect, making things easier for their clients. Now a single mom who applies for food benefits from WIC and then applies for housing vouchers doesn’t have to share the same basic information twice. Knowing how they’re serving that same person, social service agencies’ staff members can provide tailored services that make a bigger difference and reduce redundancies.

Data can help communities move toward better health in important ways. It creates urgency, but it also tracks and illustrates progress. To keep from getting overwhelmed by data, remember this: You don’t need a perfect picture to take action. You just need to get enough data to get a good picture so you can see how you’re doing, adapt as you go and move forward each day.

Is your community ready to take action for better health but not sure what to do next? Contact a community coach. The Roadmaps to Health Action Center and What Works for Health are an online platform that provides practical tools for communities working collectively to improve their health.

Is your community already using data and cross-sector partnerships to improve residents’ health? Learn about the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Kate Konkle, MPH, is a Community Coach at County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. She provides strategic guidance to communities that want to put the County Health Rankings into action for community health improvement.