Leveraging Public Health Data Sets to Conduct Breakthrough Research: Center for Healthcare Research Fellows are Leading the Way

Leveraging Public Health Data Sets to Conduct Breakthrough Research: Center for Healthcare Research Fellows are Leading the Way

The expanding availability of digital health data from public sources, coupled with increasingly powerful analytics software, is opening a new frontier for healthcare research. Very large public data sets containing valuable insights into a variety of key indicators of health at the local, state, national, and global level are now online. Researchers can conduct studies of major significance to health care leaders without the cost, time, and risks associated with collecting data from primary sources.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid recently announced the expansion of Medicare health care and drug claims data sets it makes available to "qualified entities." Also, data use may soon allow for the combination of this data with other sources (e.g., claims from private payers). This is just one source of public health data sets. The breadth and depth of data sets available is exemplified by the Center for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factors and Health Indicators for all 50 states, and the Population Health data set for more than 90 countries collected and made available by the Demographic and Health Surveys program. These three sources of public health data sets are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Two research fellows here at the Center for Healthcare Research are at the forefront of this burgeoning opportunity.  Dr. Damien Byas is analyzing data for 30,000 children from a sampling frame of more than 3 million cases to explore the association between quality of health care and the health status of certain under-represented child populations. Dr. Louise Underdahl is using a public data set in an initial phase of her research exploring the application of human factors/usability engineering to design error-tolerant medical devices.

These two potentially ground-breaking studies are likely just the beginning of a stream of valuable contributions by the University of Phoenix (UOPX) Center for Healthcare Research using public data sets. For the broader UOPX community of scholar-practitioners searching for opportunities to research and publish, the use of public data sets offer several advantages compared to primary data collection:

More economical – the use of data previously collected by others saves money and time. Even if licensing fees are required to access the data, the costs will be less than collecting data from primary sources for a comparable sample. Once authorization to access the public data set is procured, analysis can take place relatively quickly.

Institutional Review Board (IRB) exemption -- Secondary data are typically already de-identified so that an IRB exemption is likely, also saving time and money.

Large sample sizes -- As Dr. Byas’ study shows, public data sets can be very large, creating greater possibilities for the design of large-scale studies with high statistical power.  

Longitudinal studies spanning a long period of time are more feasible – Public data sets exist where the data from several years is digitized into a format enabling computer analysis.

If you have been thinking about embarking on a study and publishing the results in a peer-reviewed journal, set aside some time to become familiar with the various public health data sets that are available. Identify those data sets in an area of interest to you. Then, review the literature in that area to find areas of research needed, where you may be able to leverage one or more public health data sets that you came across. The UOPX library is a great resource for this review. You are on your way to designing a study that makes a significant contribution to the healthcare community. Contact me at the Center for Healthcare Research to share your ideas for a research project. Or, post a comment to this blog post.


Louise Underdahl's picture Louise Underdahl | March 4, 2016 11:24 am MST

Hi Michael,

Thank you for validating the relevance of digital data from public sources for scholar/practitioner/leaders.  As an example, Dr. Kelley Conrad, Dr. Ronald Leach, and I used the Open Education Database < http://oedb.org/ > to complete a correlational study of the relationship of full-time to part-time faculty ratios and student retention in 1078 online educational institutions.

The Open Education Database was established in September 2006 and is an independent, for-profit organization dedicated to building a comprehensive database of the top accredited online colleges and the degree programs that they offer. The first online education rankings were published in 2007 and were recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus as a reputable resource (OEDB, 2015).  The Open Education Database uses the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) College Navigator tool, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to help prospective students compare higher education opportunities.

Research suggests a complex array of factors contribute to student retention and successful degree completion in online educational institutions.  Availability of support may develop students’ self-confidence, strengthen self-efficacy, and improve performance and retention.  Since our research provided insights useful to higher education administrators seeking to develop competitive edge, we are collaboratively presenting the results at The Academic Forum’s peer-reviewed March 8, 2016 conference in Brea, California < http://theacademicforum.org/spring-2016-conference.html >

Michael R. Solomon's picture Michael R. Solomon | March 5, 2016 4:53 am MST

Dr, Underdahl,

Your team's use of the Open Education Database to examine factors influencing student retention demonstrates how a high-quality public data set can be used to create large samples and therefore studies with high statistical power. Did your research identify areas where more study is needed that our peers at UOPX could explore?  

James Rice's picture James Rice | March 17, 2016 3:06 pm MST

Dr. Solomon,

This sounds like a great effort. If you need any help, please let me know. My dissertation used Healthcare Industry secondary data sources and correlation analysis.  So, this topic is near and dear to my heart ;-)  I was able to use the Dorenfest Institute (HIMSS Analytics data for academic research) in my study. This was a very rich respository of data.

Dr. Jim Rice 

Sharon Ambrose's picture Sharon Ambrose | November 1, 2016 7:55 am MST

Hello all,

This information on secondary data sources is very valuable.  I planned to use secondary data for my dissertation and have had some difficulty finding reliable sources and was unsure of all of the numerous benefits of public data.  I would appreciate any assistance with the use of secondary data in my research study.

Sharon Ambrose

About the Author

Michael R. Solomon



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
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American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

ILA Conference Geneva Switzerland 2021
Presenter -Topic-"The Stress Arc in Leadership and 3 Powerful Disciplines for Mitigating Major Stress Impacts in a New Era"-Upcoming
Presenter -Topic-“Improving Higher Education’s Role in Diversity and Social Equity through Relational Leadership in the New Era”-Upcoming
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