Portland Public Health seeks numbers cruncher

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PORTLAND — There’s gold to be found in the city’s data fields, and Dr. Kolawale Bankole needs someone to mine it for the Portland Public Health Division.

“We need tracking, analysis and communication,” Bankole said April 12. “We don’t have the capacity for that now.”

Named director just over a year ago, Bankole has been with the city Department of Health & Human Services, where the Public Health Division resides, since 2004. Health trends and crises have emerged in those years and new outreach efforts to assist some of the city’s most vulnerable residents have been introduced.

Yet Bankole said he is not sure if his department’s efforts are directed in the best ways possible because data from a wealth of sources to evaluate programs remains untouched.

In the $248 million municipal budget forwarded to city councilors April 9 by City Manager Jon Jennings, there is a planned $73,000 expenditure for a research and evaluation program coordinator Bankole said would put his department and others in the city on a clearer path to understanding the public health picture.

“I want someone who can work with data,” Bankole said.

The Public Health Division includes departments for family health, the India Street Public Health Center, chronic disease prevention and health equity.

Family health focuses on maternal and child health and preventing family violence. The India Street Public Health Center is home to STD/HIV screening services, a teen clinic and the needle exchange, although the exchange does not get municipal funding. The center is also home to the Portland Community Free Clinic.

The new research and evaluation program coordinator would be asked to harness the raw numbers surrounding pregnancy rates, bedbug infestations, overdose calls, mumps or flu cases and other conditions and situations, then turn the numbers into concrete findings and suggestions for the short and long term.

“We have to know how to monitor, have to know why people are behaving the way they are,” Bankole said. “I need the infrastructure on the ground that will detect any threats and protect against any threats.”

In the short term, working with the data and with local health care providers and universities can help shape a more definitive annual report on public health in the city.

Piecing together the whole public health picture is something that has been rarely done in the city, and Bankole said his aim is to create a comprehensive report like the annual one compiled by the Boston Public Health Commission.

“You cannot talk about how well the citizens are without knowing who lives here,” Bankole said.

The coordinator would be part of a three-year plan for tracking and analyzing data, and Bankole there are three goals to achieve.

First, the city needs the numbers.

“You have to speak in data,” Bankole said.

The other goals are to put public health more into the focus of other departments with better collaboration, and become a tool for community development, Bankole said.

The coordinator will also take an active role in developing and evaluating public health initiatives and directing future research efforts based on the data analysis.

Ultimately, Bankole wants the Public Health Division to also become a resource because of its data collection and modeling, he said.

“I have a vision with so many parts. Before you can say you want to go to a place, you have to see how far you have come,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Dr. Kolawole Bankole, who directs Portland’s Public Health Division, on April 12 said his department needs someone to focus on data and help direct department work.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.