Health Data: Sources, Limitations, and Applications

At this time of year, New Year’s resolutions may be on your mind. After the holidays, with their parties, breaks in routine for travel, and ubiquitous seasonal food and drink, health can be a common theme in people’s goals for the new year. So how is health measured at the population scale? What data sources are available?

What sources of health data are available?

There are a wide variety of sources of health data, with different available levels of geography, levels of detail, and collection methodologies. We present a few below.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes data on a wide variety of health factors and outcomes, accessible from their data clearinghouse and Data & Statistics webpages. There are many different programs with many different areas of focus and publication schedules. Programs also differ by available level of geography – some tables present data at the national level, others at the state level. Since the CDC’s datasets are organized by topic (e.g., “Alcohol Use,” “Environmental Health,” “Immunizations,” “Smoking & Tobacco”), we recommend using the CDC as a data source when you already have a research topic in mind that you can start your search with.

Also produced by the CDC, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is a dataset based on phone surveys covering topics like respondents’ health conditions and behaviors. The data is aggregated at the national and state level; some tables are available for selected counties and Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with a sufficient number of respondents. Data collected through the BRFSS is used in a variety of publications and products, including state-level planning and policy, and is publicly accessible and usable for academic, local, and other projects or research.

State-level health data is available from the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Data & Statistics webpage. In addition to their open data portal, users can get data on vital statistics and epidemiology, access Illinois BRFSS data directly, and do other research on public health and health facilities. Local health data is available from the Champaign Urbana Public Health District’s Champaign County Public Health Database. This site acts as a clearinghouse for local data from a variety of sources, available for Champaign-Urbana, Champaign County, Illinois, and the United States. Local health departments and other local agencies also sometimes perform health surveys within their communities, and can be a primary source of data as well as a clearinghouse for compiling and passing data along.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects and publishes some data related to health as part of the American Community Survey (ACS). Health-related topics covered in the ACS include health insurance coverage and disability status and type (broken down into the categories of “hearing difficulty,” “vision difficulty,” “cognitive difficulty,” “ambulatory difficulty,” “self-care difficulty,” and “independent living difficulty”). The ACS also includes data on the presence of complete kitchen and plumbing facilities in occupied housing units, and the number of occupants per room in occupied housing units, all of which can be argued to have a direct or indirect impact on occupants’ physical and mental health.

New datasets of the American Community Survey 1-Year and 5-Year Estimates are published annually. All counties, county subdivisions (i.e. townships), and places (i.e. municipalities), regardless of population size, are included in the ACS 5-Year Estimates datasets, though detailed information may be withheld in places where the sample size is too small to guarantee confidentiality. Only areas with a population greater than 65,000 residents are included in the ACS 1-Year Estimates. For more information on the ACS and how to interpret its data, check out our December 2016 blog post.

Last but certainly not least, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute’s County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, produces state- and county-level annual data and rankings on a variety of health topics. Topics covered include health outcomes, or individuals’ actual experiences of their own health, and factors that contribute to these outcomes, like individuals’ behaviors and environment. The publication frequency, geographic availability, and wide range of topics make the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps a great source for getting an overview of the health of your community.

Why is health data so relatively limited?

You may be noticing that a lot of the health data discussed above is released at the national and state level, and that there is often less data available for counties and municipalities. There are a couple different reasons for that.

First and foremost, as with any population data, is privacy and confidentiality. Any dataset that collects personal data is aggregated in some way so that individual people, and their information, are not identifiable. This tends to be even more of a priority with health data – after all, information about someone’s health is some of the most “personal” personal information about them. Furthermore, there are limitations on how, with whom, and why any healthcare practitioners you see or coverage providers you work with can share information about you.

Related to those limitations is the inescapable facts that the process of data collection and publication is complicated and time-consuming and requires funding, and that smaller sample sizes and respondent groups are more difficult to aggregate and anonymize. Those operational challenges, as well as the statistical realities of making sure any data you publish is absolutely not going to convey any identifiable personal information, can present obstacles for smaller areas collecting and publishing health data.

What are some planning applications of health data?

The planning field uses health data too. Over the last few years, it has become an accepted idea in the planning field that a person’s environment can impact their health, and that by making changes to the built environment – from facilitating access to grocery stores and healthy food to planning transportation systems that welcome and encourage people to get around on foot, by bike, and by transit – planning can create more opportunities for healthy choices.

Some plans and projects include a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The American Planning Association defines an HIA as an evaluation “to determine the potential effects of a proposed policy, plan, program, or project on the health of a population and the distribution of those effects within the population”[1]. Health Impact Assessments rely on and build upon available health data. Here at CCRPC, a Health Impact Assessment was included in the most recent Long Range Transportation Plan, Sustainable Choices 2040.

Health data can also be used to track progress toward goals identified in plans, such as active transportation plans. The Champaign County Community Indicators dataset has a health category as well: we compile data on median age, the low birth-weight rate, and the adult obesity rate of Champaign County as part of the comprehensive picture of the community.

So if you’re researching a health-related topic, we hope you check out one of the sources discussed above and find just the data you need. But if you’re going to pursue a health-related goal in the coming year, stick to tracking your own progress. And good luck!

[1] Ricklin, Anna, Michelle Madeley, Elizabeth Whitton, and Angelica Carey. “The State of Health Impact Assessment in Planning.” The American Planning Association, Planning and Community Health Center. July 2016, p. 6.

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