Using Health Data to Better Serve Communities

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center (CCC) recently released a new report called “Aligning Communities: How Four Cities are Preventing Obesity,” which looks at community based obesity prevention programs and what companies can do to make a difference in their local communities.

In that report, CCC researchers looked at four specific programs, one each in Camden, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, and Denver. Each of those is having success in preventing and even reversing obesity and the health problems associated with it.

However, in conversations with each of the programs, all talked about the challenges in properly evaluating their program, both in establishing a baseline data set to measure the level of health and obesity in their community, and in determining specific improvements that their programs had brought.

These challenges stem from a lack of available data. Some of that data is very basic to collect, but just is not done on a wide enough scale, such as heights and weights of individuals or what types of food is purchased, although the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings are a great start to this kind of data.

Other types of useful data can be harder to track, such as access to health care and interventions, or a community’s usage of physical infrastructure like bike trails.

Solutions to these challenges have come in different forms. In Philadelphia, student health markers are tracked at the school and kept confidential, only used in the aggregate to help track trends and see what types of interventions can make children healthier across the city.

In Camden and Philadelphia, a single organization, The Food Trust, is working with hundreds of corner stores—which are often the only shopping option for many of those cities’ poorer citizens—to

incorporate fresh and healthy foods. The data part comes in with the installation of easy to use and state of the art Point of Sale systems so store owners can track better data about what types of healthy foods to stock.

In Denver, the city uses data collected from recreational centers to see how many teens are engaging in the healthy and obesity prevention activities that the LiveWell Coalition is producing.

While all of these uses of data have helped inform and lead programming, the obesity prevention and public health program in Oklahoma City, Wellness Now, has used community-wide data specifically. First, in 2014 Oklahoma City-County Health Department (OCCHD) built a brand new health campus, including public health offices and services, in the city’s least healthy ZIP code to focus their programming where it was needed most.

Wellness Now's business partners in Oklahoma City have also gotten involved in using data for good. INTEGRIS Healthy System has been a leader within Wellness Now to help fund a new online tool—a dashboard platform from the Healthy Communities Institute, Inc. (HCI) that allows visitors to track a wide variety of health variables gained from a number of local sources to investigate community health variables, broken down by ZIP code. Available at HealthyOKC.org, the tool is a great way to evaluate progress and easily share the health status of the community with citizens.

INTEGRIS is also using data to help inform programming in high disparity areas in south Oklahoma City, recently determining that 5% of their patients are responsible for 50% of the hospital’s cost because they are uninsured and frequent users of the hospital’s emergency department. These experiences are not atypical, but are often difficult to correct because there is not a good way to work with these individuals preventatively, and by law they must be treated.

However, in a pilot project partnership between OCCHD, INTEGRIS and Mercy hospitals, OCCHD will utilize clinical and financial data of the hospitals to identify how those patients use health resources, and work with those patients to improve coordination and utilization of community health resources. OCCHD Community Health Workers will work directly with an estimated 50 specific patients who are in that 5% frequent emergency department users to see if preventative management can lower the number of visits. Using this data to work directly with some of the most vulnerable members of the community can have significant positive impact for all involved; it improves the long term health of the patient, it increases capacity of the public health system, and it reduces strain and cost on the emergency department.

By effectively using data, the obesity prevention programs outlined in Aligning Communities have all worked towards improving health outcomes in their cities. Using data for good can have great impacts in a community’s health.