Informed Alaskans - making state, regional, and community health data accessible to individuals, health organizations, health providers, and policy makers
The Division of Public Health’s Center for Health Data and Statistics monitors the health status of Alaska residents through a number of surveys including the state’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance system (BRFSS).
The Alaska BRFSS assesses the prevalence of diseases and risk factors (indicators) in adults (18 years of age and older) statewide through an on-going telephone survey. It has been in place since 1991, and up to 2010 just under 56,000 adult Alaskans have been interviewed. The Alaska BRFSS is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s BRFSS to track health conditions and risk behaviors in the United States, District of Columbia, and territories. The BRFSS includes demographics, chronic diseases, health indicators, access to care, health screenings, and perceptions about health status.
Informed Alaskans is a data visualization initiative to make this state, regional, and community health data readily accessible to individuals, health organizations, health providers, and policy makers.
Charles J. Utermohle, is a data analyst in the Division of Public Health at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and responsible for developing the initiative. With 20 years of data, 132 indicators, and four types of regional breakdowns for a total of 226,000 data points the decision to present the data in a visual format was not taken lightly.
“I attended a BRFSS conference just as the department was being informed of budget cuts. My original intention was to use a CDC supported package but instead I started looking for an off-the shelf data visualization solution,” he says. Having seen InstantAtlas used by other states to present BRFSS data, Charles began to explore whether it could meet all his needs and discovered its flexibility and ease of use.
“Previously these data were only available on request and I would have to prepare an ad hoc report. If I then got another request I would have to go back and re-analyse the data from a different perspective so it could be very time consuming,” he says.
One of the challenges he faced was that Alaska has the lowest population density in the US which makes presenting the data for rural areas at the lowest geographic level less useful for policy makers.
“In the end we settled for four geographic analyses – one based on public health regions, the second by metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) and micropolitan statistical areas, third by boroughs or census areas fourth by tribal health regions. This gave us 46 unique units,” says Charles.
The next step was to create 29 health themes to help organise the 139 risk factors in the BRFSS survey. “That meant taking the 226,000 data points and ensuring they could be easily displayed for each geographic region also taking advantage of the flexibility of the display formats in InstantAtlas.”
Meeting the need
Health Map users can now view Alaska public health data subdivided into six public health regions, seven metropolitan/micropolitan statistical areas, 27 boroughs and census areas, or 12 tribal health regions.
The current versions of the health profile maps may contain up to 153 variables with the number of available indicators dependent upon the geographic system depicted and the number of respondents within each area for the time period. Charles explains that although the single map feature was used predominantly, users can look at multiple risk factors for a single area. “For any geographic area – an individual user has access to four different data templates both spatially and temporally,” he says. Informed Alaskans has a wide range of users. The department has convened local community groups to guide health promotion and they have found the initiative very useful. In addition not-for-profit hospitals are required by law to have a service profile of the areas they serve and having the data in once accessible place has helped them.
“All of our users are grateful because they finally have access to these data,” says Charles. It also helps them understand the breadth of the BRFSS and is helping the department meet one of its objectives which is to provide health data to inform decision and policy makers.
Charles is very interested in the way that the UK health observatories have started to combine data from other areas such as housing and hopes that the community organisations in Alaska could become more closely involved. He is also planning to use more area profile spine charts to present data. “I really like the way you can see what the maximum and minimum data are for each chart. It also means you can see quickly how each region compares either to other regions or at a state level.”
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