In Public Health, Good Data are Essential – But Numbers Alone Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

By Chrissie Juliano, MPP, Director of The Big Cities Health Coalition

Photo by Jose antonio Sanchez reyes/Hemera / Getty Images Data are crucial to creating good public health policy, but it's also important to understand how public health interventions are working on the ground. 

Photo by Jose antonio Sanchez reyes/Hemera / Getty Images

Data are crucial to creating good public health policy, but it's also important to understand how public health interventions are working on the ground. 

Welcome to the Big Cities Health Coalition's Front Lines Blog! We’re excited to launch it, and in future months, you’ll find posts from our members, the leadership of 28 of the nation’s largest, most urban health departments, and other key leaders in the field of public health. Here at the Coalition, we focus on research, policy and systems change, and advocacy. Integral to all of these is the availability of timely, accurate local data that is comparable across jurisdictions, so that we can gain insight into conditions on the ground. While there are plenty of resources for data at the state or county level, city level data is hard to come by. And that’s one of the gaps in the field that we’re seeking to fill. We recently published the Big Cities Health Inventory, where we gathered public health data from 26 member cities, and for the first time, put them in one place to allow for comparisons  on various health indicators. The inventory also offers 12 “Winnable Battles Case Studies” that highlight some of the ways cities are tackling key health battles by executing cutting-edge public health practices with large-scale impact.

We included the case studies, because, as much as we love data, we know there’s also a need to look beyond the numbers. That’s the idea behind this blog, to hear from people on the front lines of America's public health battles. We want to find out why disease rates are going up or down and what’s contributing to those results. We want to highlight the best and most promising practices. We want to know what’s working to move the needle “on the ground” and what the lessons learned are when the dust settles after a crisis. This will be the place where we share those stories and help spread successes – or learn from our failures – across the field. Below are just a few examples highlighted in the Health Inventory report:

Kansas City began addressing violence as a contagious disease a decade ago. That’s when a city-appointed commission issued a report recommending that violence be treated like a public health issue, instead of with a traditional policing approach, to reduce the city’s consistently high annual homicide rates. The city’s Aim4Peace Violence Prevention Program, which operates in the one-tenth of the city’s neighborhoods with the highest rates of killings and shootings, has seen a 70-percent reduction in the number of homicides between 2010 and 2014. Read the full story.

Philadelphia has seen unprecedented drops in obesity among youth of color – the Department of Public Health's persistent, multi-pronged population health approach to get residents of one of America's poorest big cities to live healthier is getting some eye-catching results. A 24 percent drop in kids' intake of soda, along with healthier eating and increased physical activity, has helped drive a 6.3 percent reduction in childhood obesity rates.

These achievements have come as a part of the health department-led Get Healthy Philly initiative, an innovative and collaborative public health approach that brings together government agencies, community-based organizations, academic institutions and the private sector to lower obesity and smoking rates in Philadelphia. (Smoking rates have dropped 18% among adults and 30% among youth since 2007). Check out the full case study.

Almost two decades ago, the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles, instituted an innovative school-like letter rating system for more than 25,000 restaurants. The effort to publicly grade food establishments—and require restaurants to post their most recent health department inspection results in the form of a letter grade in their front window—has contributed to safer food facilities not only in LA county, but all across the country. According to the LA Department of Public Health officials, the program reduced foodborne illness hospitalizations by about 20 percent and has improved consumer information and created a cultural awareness of food safety. The Department conducts nearly 50,000 restaurant inspections each year. Read more about this story.

Watch this space for more public health stories from the front lines.  And, sign up for our newsletter so we can keep in touch!

The Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) is a forum for the leaders of America’s largest metropolitan health departments to exchange strategies and jointly address issues to promote and protect the health and safety of their residents. Collectively, BCHC member jurisdictions directly impact more than 5 million people, or one in six Americans. The Big Cities Health Coalition is an independent project of the National Association of City and County Health Officials. Programmatic support is made possible through funding from the de Beaumont Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.