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Aetna Foundation Sponsored Series

Building Healthier Communities

How Big Data Can Get At-Risk Kids the Services They Need

By Leon Kaye

The ongoing debate over healthcare access and delivery underscores the fact that public health in the U.S. still has much room for improvement. These disparities are apparent in communities where racial and ethnic minorities comprise the majority population, as challenges from obesity to dental health continue to test local healthcare providers and policymakers.

Often at the core of this problem are resource allocation challenges. Resources (as in both people and funds) are often scarce, no matter how well a economy is performing -- or how large a foundation's checks may be. But one tool that can help communities meet these public health challenges is big data. And when coupled with the delivery of essential health services at places where citizens can access them most easily, the harnessing of publicly-available health data and statistics can make a difference for those who are the most vulnerable: kids.

TriplePundit recently spoke with Dr. Hayley Love of the School-Based Health Alliance (SBHA) to learn how the organization works with local healthcare providers to improve children’s lives across the U.S. Her background in medical anthropology, combined with her 15 years of work with children and teens across the U.S., England and overseas, led her to SBHA. And the key to her role in helping SBHA achieve its mission is to leverage quantitative data to ascertain the most pressing needs in some of the most underserved communities nationwide.

As Love explained, big data is critical to SBHA’s mission to improve access to healthcare for at-risk adolescents because it can pinpoint where additional health services, such as behavioral health and nutrition counseling, are most needed. Are there high rates of domestic violence? Does a particular area where a school is located happen to be within a "food desert?" The availability of data, from Love's point of view, is integral so that SBHA is spending its funds more effectively -- allowing the grants SBHA receives from organizations including the Aetna Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, CVS Caremark, Merck, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more bang for their buck.

And the organizations working together to provide these health services for students may continue to tap into this data as they determine what additional types of care may be needed. As students' needs are better understood, other professionals that could provide services include behavioral health professionals, dietitians and even optometrists in order to provide students a “one-stop shop” while they are in the place at which they spend most of their time – school.

“The challenges these young people face is often because they live in a context that is really challenging, and sometimes even dangerous,” Love told TriplePundit. By analyzing data, these health care center administrators can even be proactive and gauge what kind of problems they will face before they start to hear about individual stories from students about their daily struggle.

In general, a school healthcare center is funded by a lead sponsoring organization -- which, in its role as the administrator, staffs the facilities and covers the costs. Its lead partner, the school, provides the physical space. But that arrangement is only the beginning.

A school and healthcare organization are hardly finished once a health center is opened and ready to provide essential services for kids. As Love explained, additional services could be as basic as a refrigerator full of snacks for kids who lack reliable access to food at home. The question frequently asked is, how can these health centers be staffed to deliver the services most pressing for kids in a particular community?

That's where big data comes into play.

SBHA's Children’s Health and Education Mapping Tool, supported by the Aetna Foundation, helps decision makers sort out as best as possible how they can meet the needs of children who lack reliable access to health care. “Our idea and vision was to create a resource that would allow big data to drive the allocation of resources,” Love explained, “and to allow anyone to utilize the tool to identify where needs could be most met. They can look not only at health statistics, but education indicators, and most importantly, locate the social determinants of health.”

As Love made clear, this tool can empower health care providers and administrators with knowledge of areas where children may be under-insured or not insured in at all. The tool’s data mining potential helps identify such neighborhoods with worrying levels of food insecurity, high dropout rates and above-average teen pregnancy rates -- and often reach far beyond standard data sets such as single parent households and poverty rates. “If you could understand not just one, but multiple indicators, the use of this tool is a great way to deliver much needed resources where there is the greatest need,” she told us.

Information that was once relegated to silos is now integrated, allowing administrators to see the big picture -- how various indicators can together suggest the greatest health risks confronting kids.

“Perhaps I want to know counties where there is a high prevalence of food insecurity compared to the national average, or where there is a high percentage of kids dropping out,” Love posited. “Why is this happening? How do we address how resources are fairly allocated? Who are the obvious community partners? All of this information is necessary to come up with strategies of how to address these problems at a grassroots level.”

And by knowing which inputs can help improve students’ health, the use of this data can provide the arsenal by which school administrators and health care providers can make their case for funding to either local policy makers or foundations. And the end result is a safe space for at-risk youth who now can access a place where they can confidentially discuss a current problem, have a quick snack when they have nothing else available – or can even be counseled over suicidal thoughts.

The stories Love told 3p, in addition to those posted publicly on SBHA’s site, are all over the map. A Brooklyn family was screened for tuberculosis after one family member was exposed to the bacterium. A Louisiana high-school student was able to see a dentist at affordable rates after a toothache made the completion of her studies nearly impossible. And an eighth-grader in New England started a nutritional health program at his school, which helped him lose 74 pounds.

All of these stories are attributed to the role SBHA has had in promoting healthier lifestyles across the U.S. They speak to the role other organizations can have and the use of data to position these services within the communities where they were needed the most. And, hopefully, they are just the beginning.

Image credit: School-Based Health Alliance/Facebook

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye