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Joel Ervice: Data - Helping to Define What We Do and How We Do It

I don’t spend my work hours crunching data sets and pouring over confidence intervals, nor churning out reports dense with charts and tables and graphs. Numbers and statistics don’t frequently require much of my attention. Yet, data play a remarkably fundamental role in my work to reduce the burden of asthma as part of Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP). Data have helped define how we understand asthma and what we do about it. Without data, working on asthma would be like sailing the open ocean in a ship without a rudder. 

First, data help us define the scope of a problem so we know what we’re dealing with. And with asthma, the scope isn’t pretty: according to the Centers for Disease Control asthma prevalence increased by 12.3% from 2001 to 2009, with 24.6 million people by the disease.  Here in California, nearly five million people have been diagnosed with the disease as of 2007 (CHIS website, accessed June 7, 2011). 

But that’s the big picture perspective. Narrow the focus a bit and additional contours take shape. The news is again sobering: data show us that although asthma affects Americans of all ages, races, and ethnic groups, some populations are disproportionately impacted by the disease. In California for example, African Americans have the highest asthma rates, with 1 in 5 diagnosed with asthma (CHIS website, accessed June 7, 2011). Meanwhile, the number of Latinos diagnosed with asthma — 1.5 million — is greater than any other minority group in the state (CHIS website, accessed June 7, 2011). 

These and other kinds of data don’t just tell us the scope of a problem, however, but offer hints – often clear, obvious hints – about what we should do. Data illuminate problems and help hone in on solutions. For example:

There’s a third key role for data. Yes, a public health problem like asthma may be significant. Yes, the solutions may be clear. But nothing will change unless individuals, communities, and policymakers are motivated and mobilized, and data play a key role here, too. Data help capture a policymaker’s attention through briefing kits, fact sheets, newspaper ads, and billboards. Data can help amplify a community’s voice – particularly when data are collected with community needs in mind – and help it make the case for better health care, cleaner skies, trigger-free homes and schools, and overall healthy communities.

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