Data essential to promoting healthy habits

Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., is the 15th New York state commissioner of health. Below, he writes about Knight News Challenge: Health and the role data can play in preventive care. Photo credit: Flickr user Alex Gorzen.

For too long, we’ve been pumping money into a health care system that really doesn’t have a lot to do with health. In fact, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the health care system really doesn’t have much to do with keeping us healthy and avoiding an untimely death. Thirty percent of our health is predetermined by our genes. Another 60 percent is the result of social and behavioral factors, what we call the social determinants of health, such as where we live, whether we grow up in poverty and the choices we make based on our environments. Only a paltry 10 percent is attributable to our health care system.  Yet, that’s where we spend 95 percent of our health care dollars today.

What’s fast becoming apparent is that health care is no longer about what’s going on inside the four walls of your hospital. It’s not about the surgeries you get or the even the medications you take.  Gradually, we’ve begun to move away from hospital-based health care to one that is centered on primary care, which involves more screenings and routine measurements of your health, such as your Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Now we’re seeing another shift, one that comes with the realization that true health care is about delivering health. And there’s only one way to achieve it: prevention.

Prevention requires that we engage the consumer. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who must practice the preventive steps that keep him healthy. That’s where data comes in. Data provides the information we need to make those healthy choices. Related Links 

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 We live in a nation awash in data, from blog posts to tweets to YouTube videos.  Nowhere is the amassing of data more widespread than it is in health care, where every little measurement and activity we do gets recorded. Every time we take your blood pressure, fill a prescription or administer a procedure, we gather more data about your health.

The data has no value if it’s stored away somewhere. Bringing transparency is essential. That’s exactly what the New York State Department of Health did last March when we liberated the department’s health data at We provided inquiring minds with data on everything from restaurant inspections to hospital-acquired infections to student BMIs—and  there’s more to come. Other government agencies—including the state of New York and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—have had similar initiatives.

As wonderful as it is, transparency alone isn’t enough. We have the data. Now we need solutions. We need to put this data to work for us, to use it to improve our nation’s health. That’s where the Knight News Challenge: Health comes in.  The  News Challenge is a collaboration between the Knight Foundation and four health organizations: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California HealthCare Foundation, the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Health Data Consortium.

Applicants have until Sept. 17 to answer the question: How can we harness data and information for the health of communities? The challenge invites tech-savvy thinkers to ponder how we can use all this data to keep Americans healthy. That means using this data to help consumers lose weight, lower their blood glucose and get more exercise. It means helping people avoid costly hospital admissions and readmissions, bypassing the emergency department for your local primary care doctor, and staying on top of all the preventive screenings that will enable you to stay healthy.

The ultimate goal is really the Triple Aim: better individual care, better population health and lower costs. If we can use this data to achieve these three goals, then we have met the challenge. In the process, we’ll have restored the health of our citizens.

Now that’s health care.

Knight Foundation has committed $2 million to News Challenge: Health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will award prizes of $50,000, $30,000 and $20,000 respectively for the top three projects that “best combine public health data and health care data.” The California HealthCare Foundation will award $100,000 to one or more ideas that enhance the use of health data in local policymaking. For more visit