New grant will improve tracking of public health data for research and practice

Release Date: 
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Media Contact: Ashley Wiggin, aaw4@uw.edu, 206-221-2456

Data are key to understanding trends in health, especially when it comes to local health departments and how they use their resources. Everything from care for newborn babies to infectious disease control is managed in these settings, yet they lack consistent data tracking mechanisms to understand how budget cuts or increases are impacting programs, and therefore, overall health of the communities they serve.

New grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will help School of Nursing Associate Professor Betty Bekemeier and her team lead a program that will help change those tracking mechanisms at the health department level, making data collection more consistent and easier to use and understand.

“Without good data we can’t assure program effectiveness in the same ways for each place,” said Bekemeier. “We can’t adequately keep people safe from harm or provide them with resources they need if we don’t have a way to know how effective we are in managing public health threats.”

Health departments typically track all kinds of data, from the numbers of people who use their services to the types of diseases present in a specific area. They use these data to help improve their programs and prioritize their activities toward groups with the highest need. Bekemeier notes that without a national system to support consistent tracking of data across counties and states, these data are often incomparable and unusable in supporting rigorous research on program or agency effectiveness.  

“As a result, public health leaders lack critical evidence for public health decision-making, advocacy, planning, and resource allocation,” she said.

Bekemeier’s two year, $500,000 project will enable a team of researchers to continue to expand the work of their existing Public Health Activities and Services Tracking (PHAST) Study, which has looked closely at the role local health departments play in a community’s health. Recent publications from the study have demonstrated connections between funding in health departments and healthier maternal/child outcomes. One study linked lower maternal and child health expenditures among health departments to lower rates of healthy childbirths in impoverished counties. In 2010 Bekemeier was selected as a Nurse Faculty Scholar by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a program which she credits with laying the groundwork for the success of PHAST.

This additional funding will leverage Bekemeier’s work with PHAST to facilitate development of standardized public health services data collection among local and state public health systems in several states around the country and across the Northwest region. Standardized data that depict poorly understood changes and variations in our public health delivery system can be used to help public health leaders address disparities and establish best, enabling capacity for assuring the best health outcomes for our nation’s people.

“Every resident of a town or city should expect a certain level of public health protection provided by their local health department,” said Bekemeier. “This is why they are there. By having the data, there will be a stronger understanding of how that protection and health improvement needs to occur.”

She also notes how vital the services of health departments can be to poorer communities—the very communities that suffer the most when services are cut from health departments burdened by the nation’s fiscal crisis and by a lack of public understanding of their value to communities.

Bekemeier’s project will provide direction and a platform for ultimately developing the consistent national data needed to equitably allocate resources, advocate for effective public health systems, and support the research and planning needed to address health disparities.

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The University of Washington School of Nursing is consistently a top-rated nursing school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 2 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health in 2011, the UW School of Nursing is a national and international leader in improving the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. The school addresses society’s most pressing challenges in health care through innovative teaching, award winning research and community service. For more information, visit www.nursing.uw.edu.