April 12, 2013 Back to All Blogs

Shaping the ‘New Public Health’

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Paul Kuehnert issued an important challenge this week to re-think and re-shape the public health system to create a healthier future for all.data_stream

He rightly points out that we’re working from old models that really need to be questioned and asks for some creative thinking about where we need to go in public health to truly meet the challenges that face our nation.

Two great examples of creative thinking about public health emerged this week: a new app that helps employers encourage healthy employee diets and an impressive use of real-time social media data to provide public health insights.

Matthew Holt, Health 2.0 co-chair and editor of The Healthcare Blog, gave a demonstration of “Fount.in” – a new platform that analyzes social media conversations about health and creates heat maps of things like cold and flu outbreaks. It provides great visual of unstructured social media data that can be overlaid with more official public health data.

For example, Holt also showcased how Community Commons imported all of the HHS “Healthy People 2020” data to provide access to more than 7,000 GIS data layers that include state, county, zip code, tract and block-level data. The layers represent education, health, crime, civic engagement, children and youth, demographic, environmental health and poverty measures. It allows the user to create maps on a range of topics from air quality to domestic violence and crime. Does education correlate with health? Create a map to find out. Does access to healthy food correlate with less chronic disease? Create a map to find out.

As Holt said, the real potential of the explosion of health data is to help get to a better decision that improves health. The more frictionless and easy it is to act on information, the better.

A just-launched online service called NutriSavings gives employees coupons and cash back to encourage the purchase of more nutritious foods, which are often more expensive. Hammered by growing healthcare costs and sick leave, employers are constantly seeking ways to curb costs and promote employee wellness.

Recognizing concerns about privacy, employers won’t be able to know what employees are having for breakfast. The app requires the same level of disclosure required of anyone who uses a grocery store loyalty card to get discounts. NutriSavings tracks purchases and scores them according to nutritional quality. If the score is low, employees are offered discounts on healthier alternatives. A high score generates coupons and rebates to encourage continued healthy eating.

Employers also get the benefit of the aggregate data, which can be correlated with health care costs and sick leave. Employers and health plans will know what’s working, what isn’t and can experiment with ways to get better results.

This kind of continuous learning and making inferences across data sets is the driving force behind The Public Health Graph. Like retailers and marketers who make personalized recommendations based on online preferences and habits, public health officials can use the combined personal and public data across sectors to find and discover connections and patterns currently obscured by a balkanized system. For example, epidemiologists tracking a Pertussis outbreak can cross reference with immunization rates, antibiotics prescribed to stop contagion, alert area schools and deliver targeted Facebook alerts to parents in hotspot locations.

These graphs or maps of connections not only allow the ability to delivery information we need when we need it, but the patterns in our activity help health care anticipate emerging trends and provide better care.

RWJF’s Kuehnert suggests that the growing accountability movement in health care will force providers to look for partners outside hospital walls to help improve health. This makes a strong case for developing The Public Health Graph to allow sharing of data across jurisdictions and uncover inferences, patterns and trends that help us make better decisions.

There are so many connections and lessons just waiting to be discovered when data streams merge. These lessons and creative partnerships can be the “New Public Health” that Kuehnert is challenging the nation to deliver.

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