Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission Releases Roadmap for an Equity-Centered Public Health Data Infrastructure, Provides $50 Million in Funding to Encourage Action

Commission calls for all sectors to contribute to transform data systems, which currently impede progress in addressing structural racism and improving health equity.

    • October 19, 2021

Princeton, N.J.—The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the gaps in our public health and health data  infrastructure and illuminated the many ways in which they perpetuate vast health inequities. To work toward a modernized health data system, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) established a first-of-its-kind National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems to reimagine how data  are collected, shared, and used, and identify investments needed to improve health equity. Today, the Commission released its recommendations to the nation, calling on government at all levels, business, community-based organizations, philanthropy, and others to take specific action to transform the public  health data system. The Foundation also announced $50 million in grantmaking toward that goal.

Led by Gail Christopher, DN, executive director, National Collaborative for Health Equity (NCHE), and supported by a research team at the RAND Corporation, the 16-member Commission represents a diverse group of innovators and experts representing multiple sectors, including healthcare, community advocacy, government, business, public health, and others. 

Commissioners examined both the systems and the data needed to ensure that public health information works for all, asking who the data we collect elevates, who is centered in our data, who is  excluded, and why. Their overarching recommendations offer a blueprint for change and provide specific calls to action for a broad range of sectors. 

“Our country must now embrace this unprecedented time of change to create transformational innovations in our core systems and opportunity structures,” said Dr. Christopher. “Our public health system and the data upon which it is based are key to achieving health equity. When implemented, recommendations offered by these diverse commission members will help propel America forward on  our course toward healing and justice.” 

The detailed recommendations include:

  • Changing how we tell stories about the health of people and communities. Data collected and interpreted equitably can illuminate where some people and places are cut off from key drivers  of health, such as nutritious food, good schools, and stable and affordable homes as well as the  historical policies—like housing discrimination—that limit the opportunities available in many communities. 
  • Prioritizing governance of our data infrastructure to put equity at the center. This includes  collecting data across population groups by race, ethnicity, and geography and investing resources at the federal, state, and local levels where they are needed most. 
  • Ensuring that public health measurement captures and addresses structural racism and other  inequities. This involves engaging community members in interpreting public health data and metrics that are community informed. 

The Commission recommendations make clear that, in our current system, data on health inequities are divorced from the history and community conditions that shape poor health outcomes, resulting in an  incomplete picture of who is most impacted and why. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the continued and substantial need for a transformed public health data infrastructure, where data are  collected, analyzed, and interpreted with an eye toward equity and addressing the many social  determinants of health. 

To accelerate progress toward that goal, RWJF will award $50 million in funding for a range of projects aimed at creating a more equitable national public health data infrastructure, including: 

  • A grant of $11.5 million to transform local data environments to eliminate systemic racial,  structural, and bureaucratic barriers in public health data and increase cross-sector cooperation for more timely, accurate, and comprehensive information; 
  • A grant of $10 million for building community-academic partnerships with historically black colleges and universities in the Gulf Coast region of the United States to expand capacity in the  creation, collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to transform local public health data  systems to address health inequity; and 
  • A grant of $10 million to advance local, state, and federal policies to promote more meaningful, nuanced data disaggregation beyond broad racial/ethnic categories to support more  comprehensive strategies to raise awareness about the need to address disparities.

Each of these initiatives includes significant funding opportunities for a range of community partners, researchers, and advocates. Additional grants will be announced in the coming weeks.  

 

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation convened this Commission recognizing that the existing structure of health data systems does not effectively address the impact of structural racism on health or powerfully engage actions to address this at a community level. The nation needs a robust, transformative effort to address the shortcomings of our current health data system, which includes public health but also other relevant sectors. Our hope is that these recommendations serve as a catalyst for meaningful change before the next public health crisis hits. It’s impossible for the nation to fix what isn’t measured.

Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, RWJF Chief Science Officer and Vice President for Research, Education and Learning

 

RWJF and Commission members will spend the next year sharing the recommendations with a variety of  changemakers, including federal, state, and local governments, public health, business, health systems,  nonprofits, professional associations, and philanthropy.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States. In partnership with others, we are working to develop a Culture of Health rooted in equity that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

Media Contacts

Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937

Transforming Public Health Data Systems

RWJF established a first-of-its-kind commission to reimagine how health data are collected, shared, and used, and to identify the public and private sector investments needed to modernize our health data infrastructure and improve health equity.

Read the report.