Can digital health improve the lives of Durham residents?

Posted , posted by By Erica Levine | Posted in Featured, Opinion

Can technology help improve the health of Durham residents?

Authors: Erica Levine, Programs Director and Marissa Mortiboy, Durham County Department of Public Health

The question shouldn’t be whether it can (because the answer to that question is yes, it can)…

…but how?

A few months ago, Duke Digital Health joined the Partnership for a Healthy Durham communications committee. The Partnership is a community-wide coalition of more than 500 members from the community and local agencies, including Duke University. The aim of the Partnership is to improve the physical, mental, and social health and well-being of Durham residents. As part of the communications committee, a group of representatives from the Durham County Department of Public Health (DCoDPH), Duke, and many advocacy, care coordination, and other organizations that help Durham residents improve their health. 

One key piece of improving residents’ health is the Community Health Assessment (CHA). Completed every 3 years, the health assessment aims to understand health concerns that affect residents, identify important risk factors in the community, and determine what resources are needed to address these risk factors.

The Partnership for a Healthy Durham, Duke Medicine, and the DCoDPH lead the CHA process and work with community members and local organizations and agencies to conduct listening sessions and distribute surveys. The team then examines county and state-level health data and writes the report. The 2014 CHA provides a compilation of valid and reliable information about the health status of Durham. Each of its 13 chapters focuses on a different health topic and includes information on data trends, the current landscape, and makes concrete recommendations for how to improve each metric. The CHA includes information about health status and also demographics like race/ethnicity, income and education level. For example, from the 2014 CHA we learned that over 85% of Durham residents own cell phones and use the Internet. The 2014 report is available, and the full report and English and Spanish versions of the executive summary can be accessed by clicking here.

One of the biggest challenges that the Partnership faces (like we’re sure any city or countywide coalition that focuses on improving health in an area that is as socioeconomically diverse and rapidly changing as Durham) is reaching citizens, keeping them informed and up-to-date about health promotion programs, and engaging them in these programs over time. How do we advertise our new programs to the people who need them the most? How do we keep in touch with our highest risk citizens: senior citizens who may need travel assistance, or those who don’t have Internet at home or a reliable mode of transportation?

Well, that’s (theoretically) easy! By combining the ease of simple technology with the reach of a county Department of Health. We’ve been so excited to get involved with the Partnership – their CHA gives city managers and researchers alike a sense of the biggest local challenges and highest priority areas, and maximizes the DCoDPH’s ability, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to make a huge public health impact on Durham citizens.

Add to that the many representatives from regional care networks, non-profits, and volunteer organizations, as well as Duke Medicine, and we have the power to create valuable, sustainable programs that target the conditions and risk factors that most plague Durham.

For example, we can leverage technology to send personalized health education messages to otherwise disconnected citizens, enroll hard-to-find residents into new programs, send reminders about local events of interest, and even improve continuity of care by integrating social services into one large database.

It is imperative to be able to reach all citizens, especially those who are at highest risk – doing so can increase health equity. The Durham County Department of Public Health has an immense responsibility to address health outcomes that are caused not only by individual behavior or genes, but also by social determinants of health like education level, income, housing and legacies of racial and ethnic discrimination. These have real and measurable health, economic, and societal impacts. By bringing together community members and the power of technology, we’re excited to see how much Durham can achieve.


Healthy Durham

– Props to our amazing summer intern, Charlie Zhao, Duke Class of 2017, for the research and design of this amazing infographic!