When Maryland publishes its annual set of updates on public health, physicians and other providers gain access to thousands of data points as to how the state’s more than six million residents are faring.
The reports catalogue the Top 10 causes of death, cancer rates, the spread of sexually transmitted infections, maternal and neonatal death rates, life expectancy, birth weight and much, much more.
The reports also shed light on health care disparities across geographic and socio-economic lines, giving the state health department and members of the General Assembly insight that can guide resource allocation discussions.
Even without a pandemic, Maryland’s Vital Statistics Annual Report is heavily relied upon by academics, front-line health providers and policymakers. During a once-in-a-century crisis, the data can be even more important.
For reasons that aren’t completely clear, Maryland — and many other states — take so long to compile and release health data, its usefulness isn’t what it could be.
The last report released by the state Department of Health was for 2019, months before the first COVID-19 infections.
Sen. Clarance Lam (D-Howard), a practicing physician, called the vital statistics “hugely valuable.” Without up-to-date data, doctors and others on the front lines are “flying blind.”
“This data is actually really important,” Lam said. “All these programs need to have this data in order to decide what to prioritize when it comes to (allocating) the limited resources we have. Not having this data is kind of like flying blind for them. It’s really problematic when you don’t have this data.”
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a pediatrician, author and vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University, said “it’s very important to have timely, useful data to understand what’s going on in the community.”
In a statement, Maryland Department of Health officials said Monday that a draft of Maryland’s 2020 Vital Statistics Annual Report “is being reviewed.”
“We expect to finalize and post this data as soon as we can,” an agency spokesperson added, declining to elaborate. It could not be learned on Monday how long it took for the state to post annual reports prior to the pandemic.
State health officials around the country have been stretched thin due to the pandemic. Employee time and agency resources have been redirected toward COVID-19 response, and burnout — at the state and local levels — has been a huge issue.
Maryland is hardly alone in struggling to keep the data flowing through the pipeline. Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have yet to post data beyond 2019. West Virginia appears not to have provided any updates since 2010 numbers were posted in 2013.
A former state health secretary, Sharfstein said it’s crucial that states keep health data a priority. “You’re trying to figure out whether things have gotten better or worse,” he said, “so you can’t just ignore years of data.”
While reporting varies by state, Maryland’s is typical in that it reports on a broad range of health challenges, including HIV rates, diseases of the heart, cerebrovascular diseases, accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer’s Disease, influenza and pneumonia, assault, intentional self-harm (suicide) and more.
“These other issues don’t go away,” Sharfstein said. “It’s going to be important, coming out of the pandemic, for public health to get back to keeping track of a lot of things.”
Lam, who is the program director for the preventative medicine residency program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the state’s vital statistics report is to the health community what the Census is to the rest of government.
“The Census is a baseline accounting and document that serves as the foundation for a lot of government and services,” he said. “This is akin to that for the Maryland Department of Health.”
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