The magazine of the UW School of Public Health

Download full issue PDF. Spring/Summer 2015
Volume 32, Number 1

Inside this issue


Transforming Data into Action

How can a $65 million partnership and a research center known for visual data and global metrics change how we use health data?

By Deborah Gardner

How can a $65 million partnership and a research center known for visual data and global metrics change how we use health data?

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent research center at the University of Washington (UW), is no stranger to the global health spotlight. The center is renowned for leading the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD). However, some people are surprised to learn of the institute’s domestic focus. To Ali Mokdad, UW Professor of Global Health and leader of IHME’s survey and surveillance work, such surprise is baffling.

“The US is part of the globe, and IHME works in every country, including the United States,” he said. And with an extensive statewide project on the health reform horizon, IHME and its partners have an interest in analyzing local health metrics in Washington State.

In December 2014, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation awarded Washington State a $65 million four-year grant to implement Healthier Washington, a collaborative project to achieve what’s often called the Triple Aim: better health, better care, and lower costs. Healthier Washington uses three strategies: changing how payment for health services works, focusing health care on the “whole person,” and using regional collaboration to improve local health care.

“The Washington Health Care Authority (HCA) is the lead agency, but the project is a partnership,” said Laura Zaichkin, Administrator of the Office of Health Innovation and Reform at HCA. Partners include the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), Washington State Department of Health (DOH), Office of Governor Jay Inslee, a leadership network of more than 50 stakeholders, and groups focused on investment areas.

DOH and HCA will lead a group developing the Plan for Improving Population Health. There will be a Practice Transformation Support Hub offering technical assistance for providers. Partners such as IHME will be instrumental for data analytics. The Northwest Center for Public Health Practice and faculty in the UW Department of Health Services will collaborate with Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) to evaluate Healthier Washington.

“There’s a lot of potential here; I love this collaboration,” said Mokdad about the broad coalition of partners, each with different expertise.

Healthier Washington will amplify successful approaches already being used by organizations recognized for innovation, such as IHME, GHRI, and the Research and Data Analysis Division of DSHS. Doing this involves recognizing that “health is more than health care,” said Zaichkin. “In practice this means taking a systemic approach with Healthier Washington and investing in multiple interdependent areas to improve population health.”

During 2015, stakeholders will gather to shape the work of the subsequent three years. That planning year is an “opportunity for stakeholders to design something that’s going to work for Washington,” said Sue Grinnell, Special Assistant, Health Transformation and Innovation at DOH. One investment area includes developing regional Accountable Communities of Health (ACH) to encourage local collaboration between entities working on health and social services. Another is data mapping and analysis to yield accessible and usable data.

Will Big Data transform health in Washington State? Mokdad has a different view. “Big Data is a big buzzword right now,” said Mokdad. “Everyone says Big Data is going to make a big difference. But the data per se never make a difference in life. It’s how you analyze that data and how you get the message out.”

Clear data communication has helped IHME highlight health disparities. IHME Director Chris Murray has long been interested in US disparities, especially at the county level. In 2006, he published a report in PLOS Medicine called “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States.” The researchers found life expectancy disparities across the US that were staggering by international standards.

The ability to assess county-level health puts IHME in a unique place to measure health metrics. With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, IHME is piloting an effort to apply its GBD methods to the county level and—in large, dense cities such as Seattle—at the neighborhood level. As it did with the GBD project, IHME will create data visualizations about the results.

Data visualization is an IHME specialty. IHME shares visualizations and methods publically to present data usably for scientists, the general public, and policy makers. IHME’s experience doing this is a boon to Healthier Washington, given IHME’s ability to create powerful visualizations from combined statewide data.

For Healthier Washington, linking separate data systems begins with inventorying and connecting existing data sources from DOH, DSHS, HCA, the Department of Early Learning, and other entities across the state. Combining these sources creates “a lot of possibility to look at health in a different way,” said Grinnell. According to Zaichkin, “The partnership also hopes to integrate with other data sources in areas such as housing, education, poverty, employment, and other areas of life that affect health.” Linking existing data will give a fuller picture of health in Washington.

Data mapping and integration will improve accuracy and yield population health information advocates can use. The public may find access to local data empowering. Since meaningful change often starts at the community level, regionally specific data can inspire communities to address health outcomes where they live.

Reaching audiences is part of what Mokdad sees as data’s real purpose: action. “Simplified data can influence policy and build political will. At its best, such data can enable decision makers, practitioners, and the public to understand what each needs to do in order to achieve better health and to reduce the burden of disease,” he said. Data integration and visualization can yield population health projections useful for public health and medical professionals.

“Big Data is a means to do something, but not really the solution,” said Mokdad. “It’s not Big Data that’s so special, it’s the analysis of Big Data.” Turning analysis into action is something Healthier Washington hopes to sustain in the years to come.