Harnessing the Power of Data

The New York Times this weekend (story) featured a fascinating article on the role that data and monitoring are increasingly playing in our lives. Among other things, people routinely harness technology to monitor their own physical activity, daily schedules, and diets as well as to identify missed opportunities and potential causes of desirable outcomes. Research has shown that monitoring behaviors can help sustain those behaviors over time, something we discussed in a related post earlier this month (post). The New York Times, though, came at monitoring in a different way, showing how individuals also use monitoring to identify patterns or cause-and-effect relations in their lives – for example, one person used his own productivity data to show that, despite his assumptions, drinking coffee didn’t actually boost his productivity at work.

However people use it, one thing is clear: Data is powerful. This isn’t news. But the ways that data are collected and by whom is important. And although there are myriad minefields to avoid these days as our personal lives play out in an increasingly monitored world, the data that good monitoring provides can also prove invaluable to improving the health and well-being of the nation.

As noted by Dr. Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, now is a great time to think about data (article). The federal government is about to set forth its own update of health indicators for the nation – something it has done every 10 years since 1979 in the form of the Healthy People initiative – called Healthy People 2020 (official site). Healthy People isn’t just data – it is about setting goals and monitoring our progress toward them using data.

The data show progress, or not, and help identify priority areas. In some ways, the lapses in progress have been one of the most important features – identifying how, despite numerous efforts across public and private, professional and grass-roots organizations, we haven’t made the progress we’d like.

Dr. Koh notes that we made progress toward the earlier Healthy People 2010 goals in just over half of the measureable objectives, and actually met the goal less than 20 percent of the time. This knowledge provides a new starting point – a way to identify a need for better coordination and cooperation among groups to leverage our limited public health resources in cost effective, scientifically effective, and efficient ways.

As Dr. Koh points out, improving health involves intersecting with many different segments of the population. In thinking about data, this means that key data for health might come from groups and sources that ostensibly have little to do with health indicators – for example, crime rates are often used in studies of physical activity because if an individual’s neighborhood has high rates of personal violent crimes, that individual is less inclined to go out for a walk after dinner.

Understanding these data is key to successfully measuring and intervening on health. They can show us not only where we’ve been but also where we need to go, and often how to get there.

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