Data key to health of patients & communities, says health informatics expert

Dr. William Tierney

Data equals health. That is how providers must approach patient care if they want to improve the health of our communities, Dr. William Tierney told attendees at the March 1 Health Informatics Institute (HII) seminar, part of the Provost’s Notable Lecture Series.

 

Tierney trained to be a general internist, but he spent the majority of his career advancing the field of medical informatics and now serves as the Inaugural Chair of Population Health at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

His lecture, “Information: The Lifeblood of Population Health,” tracked 40 years of innovation in health information science, starting with the early adoption of electronic medical records in the 1970s to how data are being used today inside and outside healthcare settings to help people live healthier lives.

 

Data is more important than ever, said Tierney, because it can help us see a more complete picture of health.

 

The U.S. is spending trillions of dollars on healthcare, more than any other developed nation, but our life expectancy, rates of chronic disease, and infant mortality rates remain some of the poorest among those same developed nations.

 

Our health is shaped by more than our access to quality healthcare, he said. In fact, almost 40 percent of our health is determined by social factors such as education, income, or where you live. Providers need to understand how these factors are affecting their patients’ health, said Tierney.

 

To do that, they need data, and Tierney encourages researchers and practitioners to make use of the multiple sources of data available to them.

 

For example, schools in Austin measure the body mass index of each student every year. These data can help providers more precisely target geographic areas where children are at elevated risk for obesity and intervene at a younger age.

 

This map illustrates the limited access to health foods of Austin’s east side minority neighborhoods.

In another striking example of how data can inform action, Tierney shared a demographic map of Austin, which clearly illustrated a delineation between the city’s white and minority neighborhoods. In a series of maps overlaid with health outcomes data, Tierney revealed that minority neighborhoods experience more poverty, lower access to grocery stores, and higher incidence of cancer and chronic disease.

 

In response, Tierney is leading a study to assess the social and structural health needs of low income neighborhoods in Austin, and Dell Medical School is committed to meeting these as well as clinical ones.

 

This project represents a shift in the mindset of medicine, said Tierney, and it will take some experimenting to find solutions to problems outside of the examination room.

 

“If you don’t have the data you need to answer the question, go get it,” he said. “We are in the early stages of the data revolution, and it’s up to us to shape the outcomes.”