Transforming Public Health Data Systems to Advance the Population’s Health

Centennial Issue
Population Health Public Health

Policy Points:

  • Accurate and reliable data systems are critical for delivering the essential services and foundational capabilities of public health for a 21st-century public health infrastructure.
  • Chronic underfunding, workforce shortages, and operational silos limit the effectiveness of America’s public health data systems, with the country’s anemic response to COVID-19 highlighting the results of long-standing infrastructure gaps.
  • As the public health sector begins an unprecedented data modernization effort, scholars and policymakers should ensure ongoing reforms are aligned with the five components of an ideal public health data system: outcomes and equity oriented, actionable, interoperable, collaborative, and grounded in a robust public health system.

Throughout history, access to accurate, reliable, and actionable data has been foundational to public health practice. From John Snow’s work to map cholera back to the Broad Street pump and the first case reports of infectious diseases in the United States Marine Hospital Service in the early 19th century to the diversity of dashboards, tools, and trackers used in the present-day response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of data has only grown as the scope of public health practice has widened.

Today, data is central to the work of American public health. The vision for the 21st-century model, Public Health 3.0, highlights “timely and locally relevant data, metrics, and analytics” as one of the five key pillars for the infrastructure.1 Likewise, data underpins both the Essential Public Health Services and Foundational Public Health Services, which are frameworks used by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to guide public health practice and inform health department accreditation.2,3 Furthermore, national commissions and expert working groups convened over the past decade have all identified investments in data as critical for delivering on the goals of public health.4–9


1. DeSalvo KB,Wang YC, Harris A, et al. Public health 3.0: a call to action for public health to meet the challenges of the 21st century.Prev Chronic Dis. 2017;14:170017.
2. 10 essential public health services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Published March 18, 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022.
3. Revising the foundational public health services in 2022. Public Health National Center for Innovations website. Published 2022. Accessed April 18, 2022.
4. National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems. Charting a course for an equity-centered data system. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
5. The 3-D Commission. Data, social determinants, and better decision-making for health. Rockefeller Foundation–Boston University. Published 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022.
6. Commission on a national public health system. The Commonwealth Fund website. Published 2022. Accessed April 18, 2022.
7. DeSalvo K, Hughes B, Bassett M, et al. Public health COVID-19 impact assessment: lessons learned and compelling needs. NAM Perspectives. National Academy of Medicine. Published April 7, 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022.
8. Armooh T, Barton T, Burgos A, et al. Positioning America’s public health system for the next pandemic. Bipartisan Policy Center. Published 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022.9.
9. Health information technology advisory committee. website. Published January 26, 2022. Accessed April 18, 2022.

Kadakia KT, DeSalvo KB. Transforming Public Health Data Systems to Advance the Population’s Health. Milbank Q.2023;101(S1):674-699.