April 24, 2024

Q&A: How Census data can address health disparities in Illinois

Robert Santos – head of the US Census Bureau – zoomed into Illinois State University on Monday to address the 2023 Minority Health Conference. His virtual keynote address focused on how health care workers, including those who live locally in McLean County, can use Census tools and data to reduce health disparities.

His talk was titled “Framing Health Research for Communities of Color and the Census Bureau Data That Makes It Possible.”

Santos spoke with WGLT after the speech to share his insights.

Interview edited for clarity.

WGLT: I’d like to start with the first half of your address. How should we frame health research?

Santos: What I did in the first half was talk about the value of bringing yourself fully to the table in terms of creating more environments to gain new insights. So we’re talking about using your values, your culture, your life experience and your technical training in research and research questions. And when you do, you ultimately create unique perspectives that are yours alone, and that can add insights that wouldn’t have been gained otherwise.

What did we do wrong? How can we improve the way we frame our health research?

Santos: Well, the way I like to look at it is that there is no right and right. There is always better and more insightful. That means that, in addition to the typical things that professors and researchers teach students about how to approach certain social problems with analytical data, you give people time to think about their culture, their values, their life experiences, because that can ultimately lead to a different set of more relevant questions, and a different way of looking at the information collected and the inferences from the insights you gain to add value.

This conference – the Minority Health Conference – focuses on equity in healthcare, on racial equity. So if you can talk about that issue at all, and how that plays into this, and also the census, how that plays into that.

Santos: The question of equality: it will always exist. However, you can’t define it unless you have the data to show, unless you have the evidence base. And what I did today at this conference was to offer various census data products that can be used to help clarify, identify and then characterize the inequities that exist in our society, whether they be race, gender or whatever.

Can you give an example of one of those disparities in what we see today?

Santos: Our census data can certainly show inequalities when it comes to people’s vulnerability to natural disasters. We have a tool called Community Resilience Estimates, which shows risk factors associated with different communities and neighborhoods within communities at the Census Tract level. And you can find quite easily that communities that are historically communities of color also tend to have the higher levels of risk factors associated with that in terms of poverty, vehicle availability, access to broadband, access to health insurance, unemployment, and so forth. . And that means that those communities with higher levels of those risk factors, which are often communities of color, would have a harder time responding to a flood, or a natural disaster like a wildfire, or a snowstorm or a tornado, things like that.

How can we ultimately use this data? How can this data inform at the community level, and even impact the local community here in McLean County, Bloomington-Normal?

Santos: We have data tools that we created and currently exist that community members can easily access and absorb. They are data visualizations that start with a map of the United States, and then—by simply clicking on different geographic areas—you can go to the state level, the county level, the city level, the Census Tract level, and sometimes even the block. group level depending on the data products. There are tools like My Community Explorer, which are actually very good at characterizing the demographics, painting a portrait of who a local community is at the Census Tract level. We have a census business builder that does the same thing, but also adds economic data so you can look at things like a customer base. If you are planning to start a business, you can look at the competitors. You can look at the workforce when you’re setting up a factory. There are all kinds of rich neighborhood-level data available.

Where does the individual in a community fall in this conversation?

Santos: Individuals form communities, and therefore the characteristics of individuals are of great importance, whether in the neighborhood, or in the city, the state or at higher levels. We are becoming an increasingly beautiful and diverse nation, and that is why it is very important that individuals see themselves in data and in communities so that they can gain a better understanding of who their neighbors are, what their needs may be depending on the characteristics or They are disabled, unemployed, their income level, their education level. We provide data so that you can get that picture, so that an individual sees not only themselves, but also their neighbors and their community, and they can plan better.

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