Research can and does transform the way we live. Research data comes in the form of results, statistics, facts, figures, numbers, records… all which are important, but can be confusing.
One way to help understand what is going on with research data is to understand why it is being collected. Sometimes data is collected through sales, voting trends, and clicks to websites. This type of research often is used to develop a product, promote a candidate, or boost sales. It happens every day, usually without permission and we often don’t know we are participating in it. Another type is public health research, it happens commonly as well, but not without an explanation of the project and a signed consent by volunteers who choose to participate.
An example of sales research might be when a fast food company keeps track of their sales: which meals sells the most, on what days and in which months have the highest sales. This sales data helps the fast food company know what meals to keep on the menu, to determine if the product is seasonal, what foods they can remove, if there are some areas of the U.S. that certain meals sell better in than others, and helps to identify slow times when promotions will boost sales.
Public health research is the science of protecting and improving the health of a community. The intent of public health research is to: 1. inform legislation to protect the general public; 2. provide data to community planners so they can secure adequate funding to address specific health needs; and 3. inform Best Practices of medicine that are shown to be most effective for treatment.
Examples of public health research might be about the study of speed limits in school zones, heart attacks, seat belt use, or cancer. Researchers collect information that is relevant to the question they are studying. A specific number of people are needed to participate in a study (sometimes referred to as the N of a study) so that researchers can be sure that the study is representative of the population being studied– for example school aged children or soldiers or Native Americans. Once the recruitment (number of people brought into the study that is needed) is completed, the data is analyzed to determine if the rates are about the same as, higher or lower when compared to other populations. If the rates are significantly different than in other populations, the question then becomes what is the cause of the difference. This data can be used to ask more questions, inform legislation, and update best practices or to support funding for programs. The Strong Heart Study is one example of local public health research that has changed legislation and updated best practices for healthcare.
Those who work in public health research are required to protect the safety and confidentiality of the volunteer participants, to have data agreements in place for how data will be used, and to work with the oversight of an Institutional Review Board and/or a Tribal government. Data when used for public benefit in Tribal communities can only be collected with the approval of the Tribal Nation where the research is taking place and the informed consent of the volunteer participant.
We need to pay attention to research because the data from it is the fundamental basis for change. Data about specific populations is critically important to improve health. In the words of Albert Einstein, “the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Those who understand their data and use it to make change as needed, control their destiny.