April 8, 2016

The Public Health Activities & Services Tracking (PHAST) Measures research project will standardize and disseminate local public health data to support decision making by policymakers, practitioners, and researchers.

Data sharing and standardization are transforming health care and public health, with health systems developing new ways to use technology and partnerships to understand and apply data. Within states, public health transformation efforts such as Washington State's Accountable Communities of Health and Oregon's Coordinated Care Organizations are enabling public health and other sectors to share data to get a clear picture of services and health metrics statewide.

With no national standards for data collection or reporting, some state and local health departments are falling quickly behind in these data sharing and standardization efforts. Regions understand and measure public health services in different ways—if at all. Those that do collect data have no way to compare their activities and outcomes to efforts and metrics in similar regions around the country or across states—an ability that would be invaluable for handling disease outbreaks and prevention. Standardization and data access could identify unmet needs and improve population health with evidence-based practices.

The Public Health Activities & Services Tracking (PHAST) Measures project seeks to change all this by standardizing local public health data and getting it into the hands of policymakers, practitioners, and researchers who can use it. PHAST has developed standards for data collection, sharing, and access. Funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, led by the University of Washington, and carried out in partnership with researchers and practitioners across the country, PHAST is working to transform how public health researchers and practitioners use data.

PHAST uses standardized questions and measures, developed and refined through a participatory process with state and local health departments, to assess the reach and quality of specific core preventive public service activities. The measures fit into in three broad categories relevant to health equity and vulnerable populations: 1) chronic disease prevention, 2) communicable disease control, and 3) environmental health protection. For each of these, PHAST measures the type, distribution, volume, quality, or reach of services.

Now, PHAST is developing and refining a dashboard that health departments can use to report data and subsequently access data—including data about a single local health department (LHD), a comparison between LHDs within a state, or a comparison with similar regions across states. Such data access can be useful for LHDs seeking public health accreditation or seeking to demonstrate they are using resources and evidence-based practices well.

In April, PHAST is seeking a new round of stakeholder input to ensure the dashboard will be useful and will reflect users' needs. PHAST will be carrying out short interviews with leaders and users of data at health departments to understand what data they have available, how they use data, how they hope to use data, and what opportunities they foresee to solve their data challenges. 

"The more states and local health departments are involved, the more extensive and useful the data will be for users," said Betty Bekemeier, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN, NWCPHP Director and PHAST Principal Investigator. "We will be reaching out to states and local health departments interested in early adoption of PHAST Measures to meet their data needs."

PHAST expects the number of states and LHDs signing on to grow significantly in the next two years, as awareness of the benefits of data sharing and standardization grows. Washington State is already using PHAST measures, and other states, including North Dakota, are getting involved. For public health data sharing, change is coming…and fast.