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App Challenge: Battle Obesity with Public Health Data

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, June 28, 2011

You don't need an app to tell you too many Americans are fat. But what if there were an app that could not only analyze public data from your own community—down to a specific zip code or individual level—but also tell you what your healthcare organization could do about it?

That's the idea behind one of the latest Health 2.0 developer challenges—this one from The Aetna Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Hartford, CT-based insurer Aetna Inc. The foundation is offering a prize pool of $50,000 for the three best browser-based applications that make the reams of government public health data more accessible for healthcare professionals and leaders.

There are two especially helpful sources of public government data that are most useful in the fight against obesity, says Anne Beal, MD, the foundation's president. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHNES) can help healthcare professionals identify obesity problems. It includes biometric data on cholesterol and blood pressure levels, height and weight measurements of a national population sample, and the number of people that have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes, for example.

So that data identifies the problem. That just leaves data to answer the question "What can healthcare leaders do about it?"
"The literature has shown that it's actually the micro changes that we make in our daily lives every day that really impacts rates of obesity for a specific population," Beal says. "How walk-able is the community, how many supermarkets are there, how many playgrounds are there per square mile? All of those [environmental] factors help determine the small decisions that we make every day as far as food choices as well as caloric expenditure."

The answers to those questions lie within the second government data trove—data.gov—which includes environmental information such as the ratio of grocery stores, liquor stores, and playgrounds in any given neighborhood.

And so the app developers will be working to harness the data from those and other sources to help physicians, healthcare leaders, public health workers, researchers and the rest of the healthcare community to start addressing obesity on that micro-level.

"The data might tell you that you don't need one playground, you need 100 playgrounds. Or the data might tell you [that] you can get away with five playgrounds if you open up two more supermarkets," Beal says. "They say that healthcare, like politics is local. And the real opportunity that exists is to make those data much more locally available and meaningful."

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