Meet the Dashboard: Dr. Lorna Thorpe, Primary Investigator

Oct. 11, 2018

Miriam Gofine

We are excited to introduce Dr. Lorna Thorpe, co-Primary Investigator of City Health Dashboard. Dr. Thorpe is a Professor of Epidemiology at NYU School of Medicine and Director of its Division of Epidemiology. She is also Vice Chair of Strategy and Planning in the Department of Population Health.

CHDB: You are one of the City Health Dashboard’s Primary Investigators, leading the Methods section of the Dashboard. What does involvement with this element of the Dashboard entail?

LT: In this information age, there’s a tremendous amount of data on health – or drivers of health – that one could put onto a dashboard like ours. But not all of it is accurate, actionable or cut to reflect the status of urban residents. My role is to guide a really sharp team of researchers and analysts on the City Health Dashboard team in exploring and identifying highly relevant and actionable metrics that city policymakers and their partners can use for prioritization and setting policy. Once we identify a winner metric, there’s still often a lot of work needed to generate that measure for 500 cities, check validity, and document our methods. Let me tell you… this team would sweep a trivia contest on urban health!

CHDB: Aside from your involvement with the Dashboard, you are Director of the Division of Epidemiology, Vice Chair of Strategy and Planning in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and have an active research portfolio. What are some of your responsibilities, and how do they reflect your approach to understanding and addressing urban health challenges?

LT: As vice chair of a large academic department, I focus on growing new initiatives, communication, strategy, and building our visibility. Part of the magic of this Department is its highly interdisciplinary nature! Indeed, to address urban health challenges we need to draw upon a wide spectrum of expertise –medicine, epidemiology, health policy, economics, environmental sciences, informatics, communication, engineering, biostatistics, to name a few. I couldn’t imagine a better home for the Dashboard.

CHDB: So much of your research focuses on understanding urban community health. Can you tell us more about some of the other projects you are involved with? How did you become interested in this topic?

LT: I currently have a number of active projects that squarely focus on urban health. In one project, we are evaluating the health impacts of a federal policy to ban smoking in public housing developments. Another explores how to use networks of electronic health records for population health monitoring. These are just a few examples of the type of work I do. In the past twenty years, I’ve led many population-based surveys to assess the health of NYC residents. I became interested in urban health because of the sharp inequities often present in cities.

CHDB: You worked with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the Deputy Commissioner of Health for the Department of Epidemiology from 2004 to 2009. What is one lesson from that experience that informs your current work?

LT: Working at the NYC Health Department taught me how to work at the nexus between epidemiology and policy – asking practical, policy-informed questions and using rigorous methods to answer those questions with data. It was also where I first discovered the power of dashboards and liberating data for widespread use!

CHDB: What do you envision as the Dashboard’s role in helping decision makers solve urban public health challenges?

LT: I see the Dashboard as being a powerful tool to put credible numbers into the hands of city leaders and drive cross-sectoral planning. Nothing speaks to local policymakers and the public more than their own data.

CHDB: Which metric on the Dashboard intrigues you the most?

LT: Aw - do I really have to choose? I suppose I would select ‘chronic absenteeism’. Not only does chronic absenteeism (defined as miss more than 15 days of school in an academic year) put children at risk for poor education and health outcomes, but it most likely also reflects some combination of poor health, stress or poverty of the parents or caretakers.

CHDB: What is one of the most interesting methodological challenges you’ve encountered while developing the Dashboard? How did you address it?

LT: Speaking of chronic absenteeism, the education metrics in general were among the greatest challenges we encountered. Unlike health outcomes or other Dashboard measures, there was no national data source for two of our three education measures, and our team had to access data at the state level then parse data to city boundaries. To top it off, most school districts do not conform to city boundaries, so our crack team had to really dig deep into its toolbox to assess measures that reflected the true status of schools within city boundaries.

CHDB: How do you hope to see the Dashboard develop in the future?

LT: I would love to see the Dashboard evolve into a resource that constantly breaks news and provides insights about health in cities around the country, with city leaders waiting expectantly to see the latest numbers coming out about their city.

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