Public-health-data nerds, as well as physicians and patients, have a new online tool to play with.
The Chronic Disease Dashboard was created by the B.C. Observatory for Population and Public Health to enable anyone with a computer to track the annual rates of more than 20 chronic diseases by geographic region and by sex across the province.
Are you interested in the “crude prevalence” rate of asthma for British Columbians aged one year or older in 2014-15? The online dashboard shows a rate of 9.28 per 100 in Richmond, compared to 10.58 per 100 in Vancouver and 15.09 per 100 in the eastern part of the Fraser Health region. This demonstrates a rate 63 percent higher in one part of the Fraser Valley than in the city of Richmond.
There was nearly as large a gap between these two areas in the crude-prevalence rate of people over the age of 20 at risk of being hospitalized for stroke that year. In Richmond, the rate was 0.74 per 100 in 2014-15. In the eastern part of the Fraser Health Authority that year, the rate was 1.15 per 100. The difference: 55 percent.
The B.C. Observatory for Population and Public Health is a partnership between the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the B.C. Ministry of Health, the B.C. provincial health officer, the First Nations Health Authority, and the province’s six health authorities. The director is epidemiologist Kate Smolina, who is also an adjunct professor in UBC’s school of population and public health.
“One of our focuses is to make sure that we work together very collaboratively with our regional and provincial partners in the way we analyze data and share that information to support decision-making, policy development, and program planning,” Smolina told the Georgia Straight by phone. “Our initial focus is the chronic diseases.”
Other diseases listed on the dashboard include acute myocardial infarction, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, angina, depression, episodic depression, diabetes, epilepsy, heart failure, and hypertension, to mention a few. One of the more alarming charts concerns the rate of crude incidence of people at risk for chronic kidney disease in B.C. It rose from 1.46 per thousand in 2000-01 to 4.15 per thousand in 2014-15.
Back in 2000-01, the rate for those at risk in Vancouver exceeded the provincial average. But by 2014-15, it was significantly below the provincial average: the crude incidence per 1,000 population at risk of chronic kidney disease is increasing in Vancouver, but not nearly at the rate at which it’s rising across the province. But in the Fraser and Interior health regions, the rate has gone up more sharply than it has on a provincewide basis.
Smolina pointed out that the Ministry of Health provides the data. The online dashboard was created with Tableau software. Health officials have created a similar dashboard for communicable diseases, which is organized in the same way; another one that is slightly different, also created with the help of Tableau, tracks drug overdoses.
“The idea is to have timely, informative, and actionable information available to the stakeholders and to the public to support better health-care programs and contribute to better health-care services,” Smolina said.
She emphasized that she and her colleagues at the B.C. Observatory for Population and Public Health are experts in the methodology for collecting data, but they are not policymakers or program planners. She therefore declined to answer questions about how the data can be applied.
However, Smolina acknowledged that data for episodic asthma, for instance, could be correlated with environmental factors to make determinations around public health. This might be particularly useful during forest-fire season, when smoke levels rise in some cities.
“That’s an example of an analysis that could be done,” she said.
Smolina said her organization was inspired by a public-health observatory created in Scotland, though there are jurisdictional differences between Scotland and B.C. when it comes to health care. Prior to its creation, the monitoring of chronic diseases in B.C. wasn’t done by a dedicated team in one location.
“It was done by different groups across the province who weren’t always working on the same thing,” she noted.
The B.C. Observatory for Population and Public Health is based at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which is affiliated with UBC in conducting and coordinating research, education, and policy development. The observatory’s goal is to expand access to more data sets, including those concerning First Nations and those outside the health sector.
Another stated objective is to develop a “robust methodology hub” and make this available to the public. Other goals include ensuring that its surveillance products “are relevant and actionable” and that it enables “needs-based applied public health research”.
According to Smolina, the online dashboards “represent the text of health information…we hope to produce in the future: dynamic, easy to use, user-friendly, and yet informative”.
“We are the data crunchers who work behind the scenes to support what’s happening on the frontlines,” she said.