How Data Aggregation Can Tackle the Social Determinants of Health

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By Kate Schellinger

Technologists often say “data is the new oil,” meaning it needs refining to be useful. It’s equally apt in healthcare to say data is the new blood. When transfused outside the medical district to address social determinants of health, data can change lives and save lives. No longer do we need to look at economic, neighborhood and educational conditions and fumble for speculative connections. Public health informatics—applying data science to community health problems—take us from vagueness to clarity.    

How is this accomplished? The artificial intelligence resources employed in fields from financial services to supply chain logistics also can apply to public health data in ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago. AI-enhanced data aggregation examines medical claims alongside social factors to help clinicians identify the best ways to intervene.  Computers can be trained to spot patterns and connect the dots to suggest preventive solutions for patients at rising risk. 

Data Brings Urban Health Issues Into Focus

What does this mean for medical practitioners? We face formidable community health issues in our own backyards. Residents of Chicago’s West Side have a markedly shorter life expectancy than the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods. West Side United, a coalition of local healthcare institutions, faith-based organizations and professionals, cites a 16-year life expectancy gap between residents of West Garfield Park and the Loop. A New York University study holds that Chicago has the largest life expectancy gap in the country. Residents living in the Streeterville community live to be 90, but just nine miles away in Englewood, residents on average live to be 60.

If you feel as I do that this health inequity is unacceptable, it makes sense to address economic and environmental conditions as a way to improve health. This summer the Illinois Medical District organized a Community Job, Resource and Health Fair to bring interview coaching and recruiting resources to match residents with jobs in our 40 healthcare related facilities. Cook County Health brought a robust connection to wellness with onsite COVID-19 vaccinations.

But while community functions are a start to addressing health disparities, we also need solutions that match their daunting scale.  Savvy application of data offers one route for medical districts to foster changes in treatment and zero in on true health equity.  Researchers at Cook County Health, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Rush University Medical Center conduct ongoing community-based participatory research into employment, homelessness and other social determinants of health, as well as their impact on clinical practice. The Rush BMO Institute for Health Equity coordinates, scales and sustains all of Rush’s health equity programs in 12 West Side communities.

A promising data sharing collaboration will engage data and clinical teams to treat West Side residents. The West Side Health Equity Collaborative, which includes Rush and Cook County Health, uses AI to identify patients at risk for severe mental illness, substance abuse, depression, adverse childhood experience, hypertension or diabetes. The approach finds patients who need the most help and enlists community health workers to intervene with preventive care.  Think of this smart data aggregation as a medical-meets-social approach, with healthcare institutions building the bridge to the broader community.  

Medical District Mobilizes COVID-19 Response 

When medical district institutions locate and collate the data generated in our neighborhoods and healthcare facilities, we will get better results, a smoother process and lower costs. Indeed, the costs of treating chronic conditions is far greater than the money spent on applying data tools and information technology.  Everyone should have an equal opportunity to be healthy, no matter where they live. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shows not only Chicago’s health inequities but also the power of data to confront them. West Side United’s data research on Chicago health inequity prompted a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to marshal and direct hospital resources fighting the coronavirus contagion, belying the stereotype of data as the stuff of spreadsheets. Team members shared hospital resources, supported local food pantries and businesses and placed West Side residents in internships at member hospitals.

We must caution ourselves against embracing data aggregation as a silver bullet in treating complex conditions like addiction, diabetes or heart disease. There is still much work to do. But given its tremendous capabilities to stem the tides of deterioration and orient our collective efforts in the right direction, it can and will hit the bullseye—hopefully just one of many in our sights.  

Kate Schellinger is the Interim Executive Director of the Illinois Medical District

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