Public health agencies need better data to promote well-being for all

We all deserve to lead healthy lives, but many factors that affect our well-being are beyond our control. Biased systems and policies prevent people from having access to clean air and water, living wages, health care and other basic needs, and hence inequalities in matters of health appear.

For example, COVID-19 is at least twice as likely to kill blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, and almost three times as likely to hospitalize them as whites of the same age, in part because of where people from these communities work and live. Inequalities also affect veterans, people with disabilities, Americans who live in rural areas, people who identify as LGBTQ +, and others. This violates a fundamental mission of public health professionals: to create conditions that give everyone the opportunity to achieve their best health.

Just as a doctor reads patients’ vital signs to assess their health and guide any treatment, public health agencies rely on data to measure the health of a community, develop policies to strengthen it, and ensure that interventions work. Unfortunately, these agencies need more reliable, timely, and granular data than they often have to identify and correct disparities.

To improve health equity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s National Commission for Transforming Public Health Data Systems recently released a set of recommendations for government, the private sector and other stakeholders to improve the sharing of public health data. The committee makes three general suggestions:

  • Increase the importance of public health data to build a fairer and more equitable health system.
  • Design policies and invest in communities to ensure that public health data is transparent, accessible and easily shared with those who need to access it.
  • Ensure that policymakers can use the data to identify and correct structural racism and other inequalities that undermine public health.

In October 2021, The Pew Charitable Trusts launched a project to help achieve these goals. Through research, technical assistance and advocacy, we will work to enable and encourage healthcare providers in physician offices, hospitals and healthcare systems to electronically share detailed and standardized data about their patients. with public health agencies while respecting relevant confidentiality protections. In addition to submitting data on illnesses, injuries, and treatment outcomes, providers should submit patient self-reported demographic information such as race, ethnicity, age, income, and zip code, so that public health agencies can identify and address the causes of disparities. related to these factors.

The good news is that trillions of gigabytes of data are available to inform public health interventions. The bad news is that the policies and the infrastructure to collect them are outdated; many states still allow providers to share data by fax, mail, and telephone. The use of these obsolete technologies increases the risk of human error and slows the flow of information, which can hamper public health responses. Even when data is shared, important demographic information is too often overlooked. For example, 85% of all COVID-19 reports state health agencies received at the start of the pandemic did not include the individual’s race or ethnicity, and half were sent. without their addresses.

Federal and state lawmakers and regulators can help change this:

  • First, federal regulators should ensure that the record-keeping tools used by almost all healthcare providers allow easy, if not automated, data sharing with public health agencies. The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology may require developers and vendors of electronic health record (EHR) systems to integrate functions that allow providers to collect and report electronic, standardized and demographic data. detailed. While many EHR products can already do this, some cannot.
  • Second, federal policymakers should encourage hospitals and physician offices to use these reporting tools by making Medicare reimbursement payments conditional on electronic data sharing with public health agencies. State regulators who oversee medical practices can go further and apply comparable requirements to providers who do not participate in Medicare.
  • Finally, through credits and laws, public decision-makers should provide public health agencies with adequate resources and authority to analyze health systems information and respond with evidence-based interventions to protect their communities. against risks to their health.

Disease everywhere threatens well-being everywhere. Health disparities cost the United States more than $ 100 billion each year. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: a fair and equitable health care system uplifts everyone. And it must start with more and better data.

Kathy Talkington heads the public health programs of the Pew Charitable Trusts.