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New Grant Will Improve Tracking of Public Health Data for Research and Practice

NWCPHP faculty member secures a new grant to support data collection standardization in public health systems with the goal of better health outcomes.
New Grant Will Improve Tracking of Public Health Data for Research and Practice

Betty Bekemeier

NWCPHP faculty member, Betty Bekemeier, PhD, MPH, RN secures a new grant to support data collection standardization in public health systems with the goal of better health outcomes.

March 5, 2014

Data are key to understanding trends in health, especially when it comes to local health departments and how they use their resources. Everything from care for newborn babies to infectious disease control is managed in these settings, yet departments lack consistent data tracking mechanisms to understand how budget cuts or increases are impacting programs, and therefore, overall health of the communities they serve.

New grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will help NWCPHP faculty member Betty Bekemeier, PhD, MPH, RN and her team lead a program that will help change those tracking mechanisms at the health department level, making data collection more consistent and easier to use and understand.

“Without good data we can’t assure program effectiveness in the same ways for each place,” said Bekemeier. “We can’t adequately keep people safe from harm or provide them with resources they need if we don’t have a way to know how effective we are in managing public health threats.”

Health departments typically track a variety of data, from the numbers of people who use their services to the types of diseases present in a specific area. They use these data to help improve their programs and prioritize their activities toward groups with the highest need. Bekemeier notes that without a national system to support consistent tracking of data across counties and states, these data are often incomparable and unusable in supporting rigorous research on program or agency effectiveness.

“As a result, public health leaders lack critical evidence for public health decision-making, advocacy, planning, and resource allocation,” she said.

Bekemeier’s two year, $500,000 project will enable a research team to continue to expand the work of their existing Public Health Activities and Services Tracking (PHAST) Study, which has examined the role local health departments play in a community’s health. Recent publications from the study have demonstrated connections between funding in health departments and healthier maternal and child outcomes. One study revealed strong relationships between local public health spending and infant mortality and low birth weights in impoverished counties. In 2010 Bekemeier was selected as a Nurse Faculty Scholar by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a program which she credits with laying the groundwork for the success of PHAST.

This additional funding will leverage Bekemeier’s work with PHAST to facilitate development of standardized public health services data collection among local and state public health systems in several states around the country and across the Northwest region. Standardized data that depict poorly understood changes and variations in our public health delivery system can be used to help public health leaders address disparities and establish best practices, enabling capacity for assuring the best health outcomes for our nation’s people.

“Every resident of a town or city should expect a certain level of public health protection provided by their local health department,” said Bekemeier. “This is why they are there. By having the data, there will be a stronger understanding of how that protection and health improvement needs to occur.”

She also notes how vital the services of health departments can be to poorer communities—the very communities that suffer the most when services are cut from health departments burdened by the nation’s fiscal crisis and by a lack of public understanding of their value to communities.

Bekemeier’s project will provide direction and a platform for ultimately developing the consistent national data needed to equitably allocate resources, advocate for effective public health systems, and support the research and planning needed to address health disparities.

A member of NWCPHP faculty since 2001, Bekemeier has taught in NWCPHP's Summer Institute for Public Health Practice as well as in NWCPHP's Leadership Institute. She has also traveled to provide trainings on behalf of NWCPHP in leadership, evaluation, logic models, and environmental health nursing.

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