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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researcher shows current and future public health professionals where to dig for data

A wealth of information is collected regularly in the United States. Vital statistics are collected by federal, state and local governments, as well as private companies. Most of it is readily available. The problem is finding it, and then making the information understandable for both decision makers and the public.

Photo of Mark Kittleson
Mark Kittleson, head of NMSU's Department of Public Health Sciences, has written a book and teaches a class on health informatics, which examines the various aspects of vital statistics and their practical applications. (Submitted photo)

"The federal government requires the collection of massive amounts of data, but they don't require analyzing that data. That's up to us," said Mark Kittleson, head of NMSU's Department of Public Health Sciences in the College of Health and Social Services. His electronic book, "Vital Statistics for the Public Health Educator," and his class on health informatics examine the various aspects of vital statistics and their practical applications.

"If, in a community, you see a huge number of 5-year-old children, in 10 years, they'll be in high school," Kittleson said. "If your community will need a new high school to accommodate those children, you'll need some lead time. If you see a large portion of your population is 75 and older, other services are going to be needed."

All births and deaths are recorded in the U.S. There are national hospital discharge surveys, which break down information about why patients were admitted to the hospital and what happened during their stay. For clinical purposes, not only are the number of heart attacks recorded, but the also the locations in the heart that were impacted. Similarly detailed information is also recorded for cancers and other diseases. All of this information is vital for public health researchers in both short- and long-range planning, if they know where to find it and how to use it.

Kittleson said that previously, after a Census, it took years to print the information gathered in books. Even after printing, those books were usually stored in only select libraries. Now, information dating back decades is available online and easier for researchers to find and sort through. Today, data is also collected more frequently, giving researchers a better picture of what is happening in an area much faster than before.

"Once you have the data, you have to put it in terms people can understand," Kittleson said. "An important part of what we do is to make the terminology understandable so decision makers can act on it."

Kittleson said his book aims to install confidence in public health professionals when gathering vital statistics for their work. Now in its third edition, his book has also been updated to include new technologies, including the use of Google Maps for helping show important information, such as which areas in a community have the highest birthrates.