New York Data: More Opportunities To Improve Health

When New York State began releasing its voluminous amounts of health data on its Socrata platform at last March, we got kudos from all corners of the data world. But the real value will come when we answer the question, what do we do with the data? For those of us in public health, the answer is clear: use it to make us healthier.

Opportunities to do that have grown since March. Take for example, our release of data on student BMIs compiled from 680 school districts in New York. The data revealed wide discrepancies in childhood obesity in neighboring communities and gave community leaders, parents, researchers and concerned citizens the data they need to address the problems of overweight and obesity in school-aged children.

Health Data NY also has information about nursing home beds, hospital-acquired infections and restaurant inspections. That’s good information for caregivers looking for a nursing home for a loved one, patients entering a hospital and diners hoping to enjoy a safely prepared meal at their favorite restaurant.

Earlier this month, we released charges and costs data for hospitalizations in New York State for 2009 through 2011. The move signals a giant leap in transparency that exposes the wide variations in costs and charges at hospitals across the state.

With the release of this data, consumers will get a glimpse of how much a procedure costs at one hospital compared to a neighboring facility. Eventually, having the data will allow consumers to shop for health care the way they shop for cars, appliances and other big-ticket items: by comparing costs and then asking important follow-up questions about quality and value.

When interpreting this data, it is important to keep in mind that variations in cost may be attributed to many factors, including but not limited to hospital size, teaching hospital status, specialized services, geographic region and quality of care provided.  The amount that a private insurer will pay a hospital or the amount that an individual may be charged, may vary significantly from the costs and charges in these data sets.

The State Health Department is working closely with the provider community to improve the quality and accuracy of the data.

New York is not stopping there. On December 19-20, the NY State Department of Health and the Health Research Institute, along with the New York State Health Foundation and Socrata, are hosting our first-ever Code-a-thon at the EMPAC at RPI in Troy.  The gathering – dubbed “Healthy Connections = Healthy Communities” — brings together data experts, public health professionals, academia, students, tech gurus and app developers, and challenges them to come up with technological solutions to stem the “twin epidemic” of obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, we’ll be hosting panels and speakers to discuss the importance of open data in the health community, and what local health departments, community organizations and businesses are doing to encourage healthy behaviors among New Yorkers. For those you who can’t make it to Troy, stay tuned  for a three-month virtual challenge coming soon.

Ultimately, we hope the event will lead to apps that help New Yorkers locate community resources that increase their physical activity, improve their food choices and find health interventions.

As Ginni Rometty, the president and CEO of IBM likes to say, “Data is our new natural resource.” It’s time to mine it for all it’s worth.

Nirav R. Shah, MD, MPH, is the Commissioner of Health for New York State. 

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