Actionable Data Sharing: John Auerbach Discusses the Importance of Data-Driven Policies and Programs

July 10, 2017|12:27 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Wendy BraundThe health landscape is shifting, and partnerships are rapidly forming between public health, clinical partners, human services, and other sectors. State public health leaders can guide and support these partnerships with several strategies, including the use of data that displays patterns and trends within and across communities and informs decisionmaking to improve population health. Improved access to and analysis of cross sector data has the potential to generate new information and help partners most effectively allocate scarce resources through targeted interventions.

With this in mind, ASTHO sat down with John Auerbach, one of the leading members of the Integration Forum and president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), to learn about the importance of cross sector data sharing, using data to drive policy and action, and guidance on how state health officials can engage.

How is data central to TFAH’s mission?

The mission of TFAH is to promote the health and wellbeing of the American people, with a special emphasis on prevention and public health. Data is core to that mission because we need to know which health conditions are the most critical to address, and we need to have the ability to monitor whether or not policies and programs are having an impact on those conditions. None of this is possible without having access to accurately, timely, and often granular data.

Can data-sharing be used to build new partnerships?

Data can play a role in building partnerships and establishing unity. Data can help us look at the health issues that bring new partners to the table, and accurate information is a foundation for engaging in those discussions. Without the data, discussions are general and based on subjectivity, instead of using objective facts to guide the collaboration and planning.

Have you seen any recurring operational needs and challenges that limit data sharing across healthcare and public health agencies?   

There are certainly challenges to data sharing. Among these are the obstacles related to privacy, the different types of platforms and data systems that don’t communicate easily with one another, and the varied ways in which questions are being asked. There are a lot of complicated issues involved in accessing data from different sources and trying to make sense of them.

That said, there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to overcoming those obstacles. Good work is being done to allow data from multiple sources to be pooled, and there has been growing recognition that we have to look at data sources beyond the conventional ones that we’ve become accustomed to in public health, such as those related to the social determinants of health. We’re even beginning to see how data gathered through search engines and social media can be repackaged in ways that are useful for those working in public health.

Have you seen any innovative tools or data sharing models in the field that particularly excite you?

When I was the associate director for policy at CDC, I was very impressed with the work of the National Center for Health Statistics to accelerate the reporting of electronic data so that it is closer to real time. In particular, I saw great progress with the timeliness and accuracy of the death reports that were coming from the states.

I also am interested in the clinical data available from electronic medical records. I saw the potential use of such data when I visited athenahealth, a company that provides services to medical practices serving tens of millions of outpatients across the country. It was able to do real time monitoring of prescribing practices for opioids, flu-like symptoms, and obesity levels – all of which would be of interest to people in public health. They offer just one of many examples of the ways to compare data from the clinical sector with data from the public health sector.

Recently I went to a meeting that included executives from Facebook and Google, who shared their interest in usefully tapping into certain data from their search engines and social media sites. They relayed that, in certain pilot efforts, they monitored the types of health-related questions the public asked on their search engines. When they shared that information with public health practitioners, it allowed them to develop educational materials to respond to those questions.

How do you see the role or capabilities of state and territorial health officers as being unique among other health and healthcare stakeholders, as it relates to data?

State health officials are often very familiar with data available at the national level, working with federal agencies, and how their state data fits into a national picture. They are also often familiar with data that exists at the local level, which can vary within and across states. As a result state health officials are well situated to provide insight into what interventions and innovations are needed and possible, and they can become a channel for coordinating action and approaches taken at the local, state, and federal levels.

In addition, state health officials may have access to data that measures the social determinants of health as a result of their relationship with other state leaders. They are often either in the governor’s cabinet or are close colleagues with state officials in education, housing, and public safety. This offers them the opportunity to begin discussions about the data that are collected in those other agencies and whether such data can be shared and analyzed.

As a former state health official yourself, how do you recommend state and territorial health officials begin this work?

Accessing and sharing data across agencies and sectors can be challenging for under-resourced departments. For those that feel a little overwhelmed, I might suggest starting with a relatively easy “win” that can help build an understanding among people in the state that it is possible to do this. For some, a place to start may be to determine if there is a data option for a single priority area of the department that is feasible to add without lots of funding and lots of headaches. At the end of the day, it’s important to at least begin to explore new possibilities and opportunities to get data that are faster, more granular, more accurate and from multiple data sources.

John Auerbach is president and CEO of TFAH and has held senior public health positions at the federal, state, and local levels. He currently serves on the Planning Committee for the ASTHO-supported Integration Forum.