Health data is crucial to improving large-scale public wellness and patient safety. For Mitch Dandurand, a health data analyst and epidemiologist for Lorain County Public Health in Elyria, Ohio, statistics have always proved fascinating. Although initially focused on performance management, Dandurand made the full-time transition to epidemiology when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Since then, he’s aided in the collection of key data points regarding the spread of infection.
An Affinity for Health Data
“I’ve always had a fondness for statistics; however, I wasn’t really into business analytics or number crunching for, let’s say, accounting,” Dandurand says. “I entered my graduate studies in public health, initially starting in environmental health. My first semester, we had to take a basic epidemiology course; I knew within the first couple of weeks of that course that it was what I was looking for.”
Dandurand gained experience in health data analytics while in his last semester of graduate school, which prompted him to later apply for positions with local health departments. In 2015, he accepted a job in Lorain County.
“As a data analyst with the Lorain County public health department, I was mostly doing performance management and quality improvement projects,” he says. “When COVID-19 hit, we had to put a pause on those types of projects and transition into the epidemiology sector. I was promoted to full-time epidemiologist about a year ago.”
Data Collection in a Pandemic
In his current role as an epidemiologist, Dandurand has become fully immersed in the world of infectious diseases, which includes acting as the communication channel between the health department and local hospitals.
“It’s a lot of data gathering from hospitals—mainly underlying conditions of patients who are hospitalized, their vaccine status, their labs, prior infections, and getting all of that health information into a state reporting system,” he says.
The COVID-19 pandemic, while strenuous on healthcare systems, has strengthened the relationship between the health department and the other health sectors within the county. This newfound relationship has allowed for a more fruitful collaboration when looking to aggregate data and improve public health, according to Dandurand.
“A single entity cannot make a large difference in public health,” he says. “For example, if pre-term births are increasing, how are we going to stop that increase? The health department can’t do that alone; the hospitals can’t do that alone. The pandemic, while tragic in many ways, has definitely improved our relationship with these community partners. We’re excited to keep that momentum going.”
Building Key Relationships
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a critical juncture for health data collection, Dandurand has started to shift into community health assessments and community health improvement plans, which are federal regulations for local health departments and hospitals. The goal through these assessments is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of health within specific communities.
“I’m responsible for all the secondary data analysis within these health assessments. That includes a lot of birth outcomes and chronic disease outcomes. COVID-19 will appear occasionally,” Dandurand says. “The goal is to assemble teams comprised of key stakeholders, such as rehab facilities, first responders, and doctors, get them in the same room, and have them come up with a plan to address the public health issues that arise from the data we collect.”
Dandurand’s work is unique yet exists adjacent to that of health information professionals. He understands the specific challenges they face when it comes to streamlining data collection with regards to patient safety and improvement of public health. With HIPAA privacy issues and myriad databases, the ultimate goal is to leverage technology that facilitates the sharing of key data points.
“It’s not so much that we need better technology; it’s more that we need technology to communicate,” he says. “Being able to aggregate data and having systems that are interoperable would allow for great progress in what we’re all doing. It’s gotten better, but it’s still in its infancy stages.”
Planning for the Future
Similar to the collaboration with key stakeholders when formulating a public health plan, Dandurand posits that health information professionals can provide valuable insight in the data aggregation process, including incidence rates at the patient level, which paint a clearer picture of overall population health.
“I can see our top causes of death and our death rates for various demographics, but we don’t know what the incidence rate is,” he says. “For example, how many people in our county have diabetes? How many people in our county have mismanaged diabetes? Is that population increasing? That type of information allows us to plan better.”
Looking toward the future, Dandurand sees value in expanding his reach in an effort to further improve the aggregation and analysis of health data.
“I still have plenty to learn at Lorain County, but I would eventually want to move into other counties and continue my work there,” he says. “I want to continue to build those relationships with other community partners.”
With the knowledge he’s gained through is work at Lorain County, Dandurand is poised to make a lasting impact in public health.