Originally Posted October 2012.
I admit it. I am a total data geek. I’ve never met a number I didn’t like, an algorithm I didn’t want to dissect, or a math problem I didn’t want to solve. As the grand-daughter of a mathematician, my love for all things data is no surprise. When other kids played outside, I amused myself by calculating the number of jelly beans in a glass jar or estimating the circumference of the apple I ate for lunch. I even took Calculus over the summer in high school…just for fun.
My colleagues (and occasionally my friends and family) often ask me why numbers are so important to me, mostly out of concern that I’m turning into a computer. In response, I always find myself quoting 16th century British naturalist and slightly irreverent scientist Sir William Turner: “You may have heard the world is made up of atoms and molecules, but it’s really made up of stories.” It is not the numbers that I find so interesting or important, but the story behind those numbers that inform how we think about real-world problems, what causes those problems, and how we can apply evidence-based strategies to solve those problems.
As leaders in quality improvement (QI), NICHQ asks teams participating in our projects to collect data to track their improvements on the complex problems that face children and their families in our health and healthcare systems. Yet for many new participants, data collection feels daunting. It takes time and resources, which are often precious commodities in the systems in which they work. How do we get beyond these barriers? Here are some ideas from this self-proclaimed data geek to inform our thinking around data collection:
- Think of data collection as its own change strategy. We often suggest that teams work to improve their data collection and monitoring process as part of their work in a QI project. Improving your data infrastructure will empower everyone in your system to examine data and apply it to shift the system toward positive change for children and families.
- Get your own data geek. Add someone to your team who enjoys the process of data collection and the evidence it produces. Teams with a data manager responsible for measuring change during process improvement are more successful in affecting change than teams without a data manager.
- Demonstrate “face validity.” Does your team have a hard time believing the measures you are tracking actually reflect what is going on in the field? Demonstrate that the measures you are using to track progress actually measure what they are supposed to measure. In research, this is similar to a concept we call “face validity.” If it feels right, it is right.
- Pick your own measures. If you are doing something in the field that isn’t captured by your measurement strategy, create your own measure! Talk with your team leader or your project’s Improvement Advisor about creating an optional measure to track progress aligned with your testing.
- Remember that data are people too. It is so important to remember that data represents the people for whom we care and want to care for better. I have a big sign up in my office that says ”I am n = 1,” which basically means that the individual experience is the basis for measurement. Every data point collected is an encounter, a visit, a care process, a person, or a family that your quality improvement process touches. Remember your ‘n’ is not a number.
As NICHQ’s Associate Director of our new Department of Applied Research and Evaluation, my lifelong fascination with data translates into an everyday exercise of telling stories about improvement through data. I am always in awe of the amazing strategies that teams in the field apply to collect and use data to inform their journey toward improved systems of care for children and families. You don’t have to be a data geek to appreciate that just a few data points can change someone’s world.
And now for the NICHQ math puzzle of the week! If Train A leaves Boston at 8:30am at 16 miles per hour and Train B leaves Chicago at 9:00am at 18 miles per hour, at what time will they meet?