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Rural Health Information Hub

Data Use and Management

It is important to prioritize data use and management when implementing and evaluating a rural community health program. Data use refers to the action of reviewing data to inform an action, such as program planning and service delivery. Use of clear, accurate, and appropriate data in day-to-day program activities positions rural communities to effectively implement programs that serve community needs.

Rural community health programs may use data to:

  • Understand the health and needs of the community (see Module 1, Conduct a Needs Assessment)
  • Determine appropriate interventions and develop programs to improve health
  • Identify populations of interest for program activities and interventions
  • Determine barriers to care and improve quality of care
  • Monitor trends over time
  • Evaluate program impact
  • Share progress with staff, funders, and the community
  • Make changes to existing programs and practices
  • Influence public policy

Data management refers to the process of collecting, recording, and storing data in a cost-effective, secure, and efficient way. Data management plays a key role in the data collection process and helps optimize data use to make informed decisions that produce sustainable impact for rural community health programs.

Data Management Tools

Rural community health programs can use tools for data management that support effective data collection, storage, and organization. The tools available to support data management range from simple databases to proprietary data management tools.

Rural programs can leverage tools to support different data management activities, including:

  • Data collection –Establishing processes and tools to support consistent data collection across different program sites and staff. Examples include checklists, written instructions, protocols, and record keeping.
  • Data cleaning –Implementing tools and processes to find and correct data errors. Examples include creating variable labels and codes and using statistical software to identify coding errors, missing values, outliers, or inconsistencies.
  • Data backup and storage – Protecting data from damage or hazards, using both onsite and offsite processes. Examples of data backup include digitizing data, saving copies in different physical locations or devices, and using cloud storage. Examples of secure data storage techniques include controlled access, passwords, and encryptions.

Rural community health programs should use data management tools that align with program needs. Key features of data management tools include data analysis capability, back-up generation capacity to promote security, and global work facilitation or cloud-based functionality for remote staff.

Data Dashboards

Lessons Learned from the Cohort Analysis of Rural Health Programs Data Dashboards describes how Federal Office of Rural Health Policy grantees have used data dashboards to capture key healthcare measures and track patient outcomes and trends. A webinar overview of the study findings is also available.

Data dashboards are a data management tool that help visually track, analyze, and display key performance indicators. Indicators are measurable information collected to track and compare rates or trends. Within healthcare organizations, data dashboards are used to track outcomes and trends related to patient health and organizational activities, boost patient satisfaction, improve quality of care, and enhance population health. Data dashboards can be integrated into electronic health records (EHRs) or kept in Microsoft Excel files.

Care coordination and community health worker (CHW) programs use data dashboards to identify potential patients by analyzing health care utilization trends, such as number of emergency department visits, hospital readmissions, or ambulance calls. Data dashboards can also include tracking functions to ensure patients maintain regularly scheduled appointments. For example, patients with diabetes should see their healthcare provider every three months to monitor A1Cs. In addition, some data dashboards can connect other care-related information, such as lab results, EHRs, and billing information.

Rural community health programs can utilize data dashboards to:

  • Track program progress, program outcomes, and workflow analyses
  • Monitor community health data
  • Identify populations of interest for interventions and programs
  • Identify best practices
  • Adjust program activities
  • Influence decision-making

The Health Resources and Services Administration provides several examples of interactive data dashboards.

Implementation Considerations

A data management plan describes how a program will use and manage data. The data management plan should describe the data that will be collected and how the data will be stored and secured. Data security — keeping data safe from loss or misuse — is an important component of data management. A breach of data security could damage the quality of the program and violate program participants' rights. For example, information collected in substance use disorder program evaluations regarding mental health is particularly personal and sensitive. The program evaluator is responsible for ensuring that all data collected are protected.

Other implementation considerations in the early stages of data dashboard development include:

  • Available time and resources
  • Users and user needs (within and outside of the program/organization)
  • Data sharing between external and internal stakeholders

Resources to Learn More

Put Data to Use
The National Rural Health Resource Center developed a web-based tool for rural health stakeholders to demonstrate how to work with datasets and interact with dashboards.
Organization(s): National Rural Health Resource Center

Using Data in Public Health Delivery
This website describes the many ways data can be utilized in public health.
Organization(s): Unite for Sight