Whitney WittIt’s National Public Health Week! We’re spotlighting this year’s daily NPHW themes with a series of guest posts from APHA members. Today’s NPHW theme is maternal and child health, and our guest post comes from Whitney P. Witt, PhD, MPH, inaugural dean and professor at the College of Health at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Witt currently serves as chair of APHA’s Maternal and Child Health Section.

Tracking global outbreaks of COVID-19 underscores the critical importance of timely and accurate data and the use of sophisticated analytics to monitor and predict the path of epidemics. Addressing health concerns that disproportionately impact women and children is no different.

In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of technologies to help analyze population health data, from artificial intelligence and multilevel modeling to virtual reality data visualizations. When couched in strong theory and applied to high-quality data, these emerging analytics can also be used to inform improvements in the lives of women, children and their families.

A number of local, regional, national and global data efforts already monitor health and track emerging trends, but there’s still an ongoing need for longitudinal studies to track exposures and outcomes in women and their children, from pre-conception through birth and a child’s early years of development. Likewise, there are opportunities to enhance existing surveillance systems with a broader and deeper range of information, data quality and standardization, and data linkage. At its core, such work will help us develop new insights we can then translate into evidence-based interventions and use to inform policymakers.

Creating and improving such data systems should be based on sound theory, research questions and hypotheses. For example, one research question especially relevant right now is how stressful events experienced in early life “get under the skin” to affect health outcomes later in life. It’s one of the many questions that better data linkage could help answer.

Data linkage gives researchers the rich tapestry of information they need to understand how multiple and various determinants interact and influence the health of mothers and children.

For instance, research on the impact of community-level social factors and health policies should also include information collected across time, settings and various decision-making levels. Fortunately, much of this info already exists in data systems spanning health systems, insurers, educational systems, social service agencies, and a range of public and private sources. Linking such large data sources and making them available to maternal and child health researchers would greatly benefit the field as a whole.

The availability of data science techniques to manage previously unwieldy volumes of data, coupled with the promise of robust information through data linkage, has unlocked a chance for sophisticated methodological approaches to maternal and child health. With an appropriate data system, for example, state policymakers could quickly assess the impact of policy changes on vulnerable women and children, such as the criminalization of maternal substance use and its impact on access to care, treatment uptake and neonatal abstinence syndrome.

To reap the full promise of emerging data technology, we still need new birth cohorts studied from the start using advanced data linkage and analytics — such work will help us create a common framework for the field and keep driving innovation forward. The time is right to harness the big data revolution for the health of mothers and children.

To learn more about National Public Health Week and get involved, visit www.nphw.org. And don’t forget to join APHA and public health partners nationwide for the annual NPHW Twitter Chat on Wednesday, April 8, at 2 p.m. EST. Follow @NPHW on Twitter and use the hashtag #NPHWChat.

For resources, news and advocacy on the coronavirus pandemic, visit APHA’s COVID-19 page. For more on how each day’s NPHW theme intersects with COVID-19, visit nphw.org/nphw-2020/covid-19.