Data: A Powerful Vehicle for Understanding the Health of Populations

Data… it can often be a daunting or sleep-inducing word for many. However, if you are new to public health practice or have been working in the field for many years, data can be a powerful vehicle for understanding the health of populations --- highlighting both the existence of problems and opportunities for improvement. Data can influence health and wellness and play a vital role in addressing the health of a community. Over time, the connection between health and data has evolved, increasing access to data and information to better understand factors that affect the health of populations and evidence-based strategies to address health issues. Data can affect change, including:

·       Monitoring and evaluation of local public health programs and initiatives can guide community action to support policy change and improve program effectiveness;

·       Inform the decision making process of public health professionals, government leaders, and key decision makers;

·       Inform strategic health improvement planning and evaluation efforts to support health promotion and chronic disease prevention efforts.

·       Broaden your understanding of the relationship between the factors that affect individual health to address social determinants of health and reduce health disparities; and

·       Local data also helps support assessment of a community and guides stakeholders and partners involved to determine health priorities, identify and activate local and state resources, as well as develop an action plan to implement opportunities to promote local public health.

What exactly is “data”?  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines data as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.”  Data can be obtained from a variety of sources and methods, including primary and secondary data sources, which includes quantitative (hard data) and qualitative data (soft data). Primary data is original data, which can be collected through various methods, e.g. survey, focus groups, or key informant interviews. Secondary data is available through existing data sources that was previously collected for a specific reason and can be reused. Quantitative data may best describe why a program is needed and how a program is functioning and Qualitative data “is designed to reveal a target audience’s range of behavior and the perceptions that drive it with reference to specific topics or issues which cannot necessarily be captured through hard data collection.” (NACCHO, 2012) Learn more about data from the The Community Toolbox.  

Where do you turn to find the evidence…the data? In public health practice, to effectively affect change and improve population health, evidence-based data is relied upon. There is a wealth of resources to access data to support public health practice and it does not have to be daunting. It is important to collect data from evidence-based, valid resources.  There are different levels of resources available to guide public health practice, which vary in validity and efficacy, but is still evidence. Objective data can be accessed through sources ranging from scientific literature in systematic reviews, journal articles, and public health surveillance data to more subjective data, accessed through word of mouth and personal experience.  We will dig deeper into evidence-based public health in future issues.

So which one(s) do you use?  According the Prevention Research Center, St. Louis, “like beauty… or evidence is in the eye of the beholder—so you have to package it differently for different audiences.”  Keep in mind who and what you need to gather data for and you will likely find that a mixture of data is essential to defining and explaining the issues that affect populations. When determining what data collection methods to use; 1) consider using mixed methods (e.g. survey, focus groups, and secondary data) to gather comprehensive, quality information; 2) select quality and valid data sources; and consider costs when determining data collection methods…what resources are available to support the work? Depending on your goals, simply gathering data from existing sources is a great way to get started. Still not sure what you need…enlist the help of experts to collaborate with and gather comprehensive, quality data and information to establish a baseline understanding of the issues you are trying to address. It is much easier to affect change, if you know where you are starting from. 

Happy Data Collecting