Why community health centers are betting on data collection to advance health equity
By collecting accurate data, local health centers can identify the needs in their communities, deploy resources where most needed and analyze the results to better inform care.
Following the Biden administration's proclamation on National Health Center Week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded nearly $90 million across 1,400 Health Resources and Services Administration community health centers. This funding is intended to advance equitable health care practices by enabling better data collection and reporting.
This decision aligns with many other post-pandemic initiatives. All facets of the health care landscape are placing a significant emphasis on increasing access to quality, equitable care as a result of the shortcomings exposed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s also no surprise that this funding specifically identifies the importance of data collection and reporting. Experts within private industry and at the federal, state and local government levels alike are investing heavily in IT modernization to improve data management. It’s become evident that better data collection, management and analysis will be the key to delivering a healthier future for patients across the country.
Building trust through understanding
Federally Qualified Health Centers are community-based and patient-directed organizations that deliver affordable medical, dental and behavioral health services to more than 30 million patients each year, including one in three people living in poverty and one in five rural residents.
These health centers played a pivotal role in the nation’s COVID-19 response, mitigation and recovery efforts, demonstrating the importance of community engagement in delivering trusted health care services in the highest risk populations.
The funding made available to these health centers supports a data modernization effort aimed at better identifying and responding to the specific needs of patients and communities through improved data quality.
It’s widely understood that an equitable future for health care begins at the local level, and while collecting actionable data is critical, there are certain qualitative aspects of care that can only be understood with human interaction.
With the availability of more accurate and robust information, local programs can tailor their efforts to improve patient outcomes and advance health equity — the attainment of the highest level of health for all people, where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to reach their optimal health.
Health centers excel at reaching into their communities to quickly adapt and leverage existing networks, relationships and knowledge to respond to crises in effective and innovative ways. That’s exactly why the government has entrusted state and local health centers with the funding necessary to meet the needs of their patients, today and in the future.
Recognizing the social drivers of health
In addition to enabling health centers to gather better data on patient health status, the recent HHS funding is designed to accumulate and analyze data on social determinants, or drivers, of health (SDoH).
As defined by the World Health Organization, SDoH include socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood/social and physical environment, nutrition and food security, health care access, digital access and more.
Acknowledging and understanding SDoH will be a key component of achieving health equity, and comprehensive data collection is a critical first step in identifying precisely how these factors impact the health of certain populations. Without accurate data, substantial changes to health policy will not be based on empirical evidence and are therefore unlikely to be effective.
Through partnerships and assistance with organizations that recognize the role that SDoH play in equitable health care, local health care centers can harness the power of data to mitigate inequities and create meaningful improvements in the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.
Empower change with modernization
It’s paramount that industry partners collaborate with state and local health care organizations to improve lives and communities by bridging the technology gap to make IT an enabler of equitable health care, not an obstacle to operations.
Some ways IT can help deliver a more equitable public healthcare system are via frequent, accurate data collection, data sharing and by improving the capacity of digital infrastructure.
By collecting accurate data, and analyzing the results of that information, local health centers can identify the needs of these communities, deploy the necessary resources where needed the most and analyze the results to better inform the care of those communities.
Through health care data management, these services and tasks can be updated in real-time, providing accurate information for patients and providers.
When all details are kept up-to-date, organizations can move toward additional health care innovation, develop patient-provider relationships and strengthen the available services for those in medical need. These innovations have the potential to unlock dramatic improvements in the health care landscape at scale, such as automation, predictive modeling and self-service portals.
Each year, National Health Center Week raises awareness for the mission of Federally Qualified Health Centers and honors their accomplishments. While it is an opportunity to recognize the admirable and essential work of the heroic staff who keep these organizations running, it is also important to applaud the effort to advance health equity through data modernization.
With newly available resources and an investment in data management, health centers can help deliver a more just future for underserved and vulnerable communities across the country.
Kamala Green is the Social Drivers of Health Program Manager for National Government Services at Elevance Health.
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