Use Data for Health, Not for Data’s Sake

Apr 2, 2015, 10:10 AM, Posted by Hilary Heishman

Using data for health is most powerful when you know what problems you're trying to solve. The latest Data for Health report looks at how we can harness that data to source community solutions.

Financial chart, close-up

A few months ago, community members and leaders from an array of local organizations came together in Philadelphia, Des Moines, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Charleston, to talk about ways they and others around them use data to improve health—as well as the hopes, concerns, and challenges they face in collecting and sharing data.

After listening to and reading about these conversations that were part of the Data for Health listening series, this piece of practical wisdom captured in a new report on what we learned from those meetings jumped out at me:

The real question is not 'What data do you want to collect?' but rather, 'What problem do you want to solve?'

The quote is especially enlightening for community advocates and public health practitioners such as myself. We often use the data itself as a starting point for assessing the health of a community. This data-first approach can reveal useful information, but allows us to overlook important details about a community and the people who could help us address its health challenges. We might also collect data we do not really need.

Increasingly I value focusing on solutions more than the data. This means that I first try to consider the aspects of a defined community health problem, then decide what data I need to understand those aspects. I am more likely to only collect data I need that directly informs solution planning. A solutions-oriented approach also forces me to look beyond the sources of data I knew best from my days working in a health department, and seek out information from different kinds of sources so I really understand the problem at hand and have good information to help solve it.

Let’s look at asthma as an example. A person with access to clinical data might look at ER admissions and focus on the number of children visiting for asthma flare-ups. Focusing only on the data she already has, and the perspective it gives, may lead her to considering primarily clinical interventions. But if the same person thinks about the problem of childhood asthma and considers its various aspects (environment, risk factors, etc.), she will be more likely to look for other useful data and view the ways to prevent asthma flare-ups very differently.

Across the country, we are seeing a change in the “data landscape” to address such persistent problems. Municipalities can compile and layer de-identified data from schools, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, insurance claims, electronic health records, air quality reports, housing quality, and even air quality complaint calls to detect and prevent asthma. In Louisville, GPS-enabled inhalers provided to the community by Propeller Health (formerly Asthmopolis) are enabling doctors and city officials to pinpoint environmental factors at the street level that are aggravating asthma symptoms.

Because such a variety of data is increasingly available, looking at the problem first can help us use the data in ways that are more likely to inform solutions.

Participants in the Data for Health listening sessions were well aware of the growing trend of thoughtfully using data from a variety of sources, noting that, “Communities need all kinds of information relevant to health such as about the environment, safety, stress, and housing.” They understood that to build a Culture of Health, we need to look at information from across sectors in a way that enables action.

In line with that recognition, RWJF recently launched a new initiative: Data Across Sectors for Health (DASH), coordinated by the Illinois Public Health Institute and Michigan Public Health Institute. Grantees and collaborators with DASH will identify barriers, opportunities, and promising practices for organizations collaborating across sectors to connect information systems and share data that can be used to improve community health. The Foundation anticipates sharing a call for proposals to help others participate in DASH. This initiative is one of the many ways RWJF will implement the lessons learned from Data for Health.

And I hope that the next time you get excited about getting access to a new source of data, you pause first to ask yourself, “What problem do I want to solve?”

Hilary Heishman

Hilary Heishman, is a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She works on a variety of topics across public health and health care with special attention to improving and connecting systems that support and enable people to be healthy. Read her full bio.