Campus & Community

Health conference looks at the numbers

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Health stats critical to assessment of disparities

The topic of health statistics took center stage last week as practitioners from around the world discussed the critical role statistics play in identifying and addressing health disparities during a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) symposium last week (May 5).
School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom said the information conveyed by health statistics is critical in identifying both disparities in health and in designing programs to address them.

In today’s globalizing world, Bloom said, an increasing gap is found between those who “have” and those who “have not,” and that gap extends to health care. While universities don’t have the power to address these inequalities directly, they can stimulate discussions and use their convening power to bring together people who may be able to prompt action.

“It seems pretty clear that disparities within and between countries are increasing,” Bloom said.

Health information in the form of statistics is important, Bloom said, because such data describe problems that otherwise are just anecdotal.

“I truly believe that without credible, scientific evidence, everything else is just opinion,” Bloom said.

Nancy Krieger, associate professor of society, human development, and health, and one of the event’s organizers, said gathering statistical data on health disparities can be a double-edged sword because statistics can be used to discriminate against minority groups as well as to help them.

At the other extreme, though, is the mind-set that without data, a problem doesn’t exist.

“For health disparities to matter, they have to be counted,” Krieger said.

The most delicate issue, she said, is how to design health data collection systems that gather the needed information while guarding against misuse.