How Can We Use a Wealth of Data to Improve the Health of Communities Across the Nation?

Apr 6, 2015, 11:15 AM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough

There's a wealth of data that paints a picture of the health challenges and successes of communities across the country. It's critical to use that data to measure progress in order to raise the grade of our nation's health.

For local health officials across the nation, the release of the 2015 County Health Rankings gives communities an important opportunity to reflect on how they are doing when it comes to the health of their residents. The Rankings are a snapshot capturing the healthiest or least healthy counties in a given state.

But the Rankings also give communities a chance to delve deeper and explore beyond the headlines and the misrepresentative “best and worst” lists. Through the Rankings, we can really dive into data that can help us understand how to build a Culture of Health for citizens in all counties across the nation.

At RWJF, we view the Rankings through the lens of our Culture of Health framework—which is informed by data. This framework recognizes that a child growing up at a spot along Route 99 in the San Joaquin Valley, California, may live 9 fewer years than a child growing up just a few miles down the road. It also recognizes that a cross-sector, collaborative effort to reduce poverty in Asheville, North Carolina, or a movement to help youth go further with their education in Mason County, Washington, are the types of downstream, structural changes necessary to really improve health for all—and, yes, possibly rankings.

So how do we really know if we’re making progress? The challenge is to use this wealth of data to identify the opportunities and obstacles in communities that can help inform a roadmap for improvement.

When we see a low-ranking county like New Haven, Connecticut or Brooks County in Texas, we want to know, how high is unemployment? How many kids are graduating from high school? What percentage of children live in poverty? Are crime rates rising? What does the gap between rich and poor look like? Measures like these tell the story behind the numbers. They illustrate where we’re making gains, and help us see how we can drive progress in areas where we’re not.

Data is only as valuable as the action it inspires or the lives it improves. It’s not about a quick win, because we know that progress takes time. It takes time to yield tangible results, such as adopting obesity prevention programs and witnessing a corresponding increase in the percentage of people at a healthy weight. How will the living wage ordinance passed in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2007 impact the 26% childhood poverty rate that steadily increased in Buncombe County from 2002-2012? We might not have the answer right away, but collaboration is what will move a community toward a Culture of Health. It’ll take working together across sectors, making health a priority, spreading best practices and use data to track progress across the nation.

So, let’s be realistic about how we approach and measure progress in health, county by county. The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Action Center is a great place for each community to seek solutions and begin or continue its journey to improve health—for resources on what works, stories on how communities are improving health, even coaches who are ready to help.  You don’t have to wait for next year’s Rankings to get started.

Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read more from his series.