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Understanding how data can help inform a healthier world


With the ever-changing technological world, advancements in data science allow us to better understand how social determinants of health impact the progress of public health work, according to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH).

 Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor at BUSPH, Sandro Galea, and Lead Project Director, Salma Abdalla, worked to examine the connection between data, social determinants of health (SDoH), and public policy-making. After surveying eight countries (Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the United States) differing in income levels, cultures, and economy, researchers found that 24.6% of the global participants believed healthcare was the most important determinant of health. This was followed by 19.3% believing that education was the most impactful.

The results of the multi-country survey mirror a widespread disconnect, in which medicine and healthcare are often considered the sole drivers of health, excluding more social and environmental influences. In the article featured by the World Economics Forum, Sandro Galea and Salma Abdalla explained, “our health is inextricably linked to social determinants – the upstream forces such as culture, politics, the accessibility of education, and the economy, that shape our lives. And yet, when we talk about health, we tend to overlook these wider issues.” 

Ultimately, investing in healthcare is not the sole path to promoting a healthier world; instead, there needs to be a diversified investment in all determinants of health (i.e., community centers, greenspaces, eco-friendly materials, mental health support). Recognizing the lack of consideration for all social determinants that impact health, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Boston University School of Public Health identified six critical principles to aid the process of improving data- and SDoH-based research to shape policies and future investments.

Six ways data improves public health:

  1. Evidence-based decision-making: To promote healthier societies, evidence-based decision-making needs to expand beyond healthcare to include education and social justice. These factors influence both the physical and mental health of a community.
  2. All decisions about investments in any sector: Health is a prominent factor in public and private sectors and should be a driving factor when it comes to making investments in the community. This is especially true for those that may pose the greatest risks to public health.
  3. Health equity: Health equity needs to be a top factor in the decision-making process. Policymakers should acknowledge the trade-offs between short- and long-term costs and benefits, especially the enacted policies limiting someone’s access to available and affordable healthcare because of their social position or location. With the help of public health data, government and stakeholders can work toward common goals strengthening and enhancing public health for all.
  4. Building (and using) data resources on the social determinants of health: With the increased ability to gather data through different sectors, scientific data should be utilized to make informed decisions that take all aspects of health into consideration. Even though technology has made it easier, there are still a few obstacles facing data gathering, such as availability, hierarchy, non-uniform definitions and measurements, public skepticism, or lack of data related to marginalized populations.
  5. Better, more transparent, and accountable governance: Data on the social determinants of health data should make for a better, more transparent, and more accountable governance. Because policymakers have scientific data on which they can base their recommendations, policies, and investments, they should (and need to) explain their reasonings to the public.
  6. Participatory and inclusive of multiple and diverse perspectives: While taking the data into consideration, decision-makers need to include diverse perspectives from different sectors and populations. By allowing for varying perspectives, all ends of the spectrum are covered, and there is less of a chance that certain communities are impacted more than others.

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