Putting Data to Action in Philadelphia

Mar. 27, 2019

Raynard Washington

Philadelphia has a lot going for it: the Sixers are doing well and there is a new superstar joining the Phillies for the 2019 season.  And when it comes to health, our city has a lot to be proud of: more residents than ever before have health insurance, have opportunities to be active and play in green spaces, and have more access to healthy foods than many cities of our size. But this progress is not equal across neighborhoods and there are still many complex health challenges to solve. Several neighborhoods in Philly, most with the highest rates of poverty, are behind the rest of the city across a range of health indicators including life expectancy. In fact, Philadelphia overall is experiencing a downturn in life expectancy due to the opioid and gun violence epidemics occurring in our city.

At the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH), we work to frame our challenges as opportunities to learn more about what is driving the inequities, so we can better target our resources to improve health and well-being for all. That is why having tools like the City Health Dashboard, which provides the 500 largest U.S. cities with an easy-to-use resource to view and compare data on 37 measures of health and the factors that shape it, helps us identify priorities and ground them in data.  Armed with data, we work with partners, local leaders and Philadelphians to draft policy and implement programs that will drive change and improve outcomes for all residents.

Lead-Free Philly Compared to other cities across the country, Philadelphia has very old housing stock. Many homes were built when use of lead paint was common, and therefore, they still contain lead paint. Lead is poisonous for young children and can cause short- and long-term adverse health and developmental outcomes. The Dashboard’s census tract maps help pinpoint neighborhoods with the highest risk of lead exposure, based on the housing stock. PDPH is using local data to identify children and remediate households at risk for lead poisoning, and championing policies to protect children and families from this preventable outcome. For more information on how we’re working to make a #LeadFreePhilly, check out our Lead and Healthy Homes Program.

Promoting a Smoke-Free City The Dashboard’s smoking metric shows us that smoking rates in Philadelphia are highest in lower-income communities. We also know that the amount of smoking retailers is related to smoking rates, and that tobacco outlets, such as corner stores, are more prevalent in Philadelphia’s low-income, minority neighborhoods. When we compare smoking rates with where retailers are in abundance it is not surprising that we, in general, see higher smoking rates around these retailers.  These retailers often market their products in their windows and many have been reprimanded for inappropriately selling tobacco to teenagers in the past.  What this means in reality: a child who lives in a lower-income neighborhood in North Philly might walk by as many as sixteen tobacco outlets on a half-mile walk to school, compared to just one outlet for a child in a more affluent neighborhood, like Chestnut Hill.

Philadelphia, PA Tobacco Retailer Density

Source: Philadelphia Department of Public Health

Philadelphia, PA Smoking Rate

Source: The City Health Dashboard

Access to Care Another key priority for the city is ensuring that all residents have access to quality health care in the communities where they live and work. Last year, we created a new report using data to identify areas of the city where people were lacking adequate health care access with the hope of raising awareness and catalyzing change. Since the report was released, two new community health centers, one city-operated, have committed to opening in neighborhoods we reported as primary care shortage areas. Having census-tract level data, like in the City Health Dashboard, allows us to more precisely identify and respond to these types of health inequities.

Philadelphia is a growing, diverse, hard-working, and resilient city. Our community celebrates our successes collectively and with zeal. Watching the city come together to cheer on our beloved Eagles during the Super Bowl is a memory none of us will ever forget. At PDPH, we’re applying that same commitment and passion to solving Philadelphia’s biggest health and equity challenges. You can count on us.

Raynard Washington, MPH, PhD, is the Chief Epidemiologist for the City of Philadelphia, Department of Public Health. He is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data that provides actionable information on the health status of Philadelphia residents and leads the development of the Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan.

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