LIBRARY INSIDER: Researching health equity and social justice


Using data from the 2016 National Center of Health Statistics' National Vital Statistics System, a 2019 study from the city of Pittsburgh's Gender Equity Commission found that Black women in Pittsburgh had a higher risk of maternal mortality than women of other races. Teasing out the factors associated with this higher risk is key to reducing the higher maternal mortality rate seen in this group.

Unfortunately, finding that research is not always straightforward. One reason is that the language authors use to describe their research and populations of interest varies across disciplines and has evolved over time. Another is that the databases that we use to find this research may use outdated keywords or complex controlled vocabulary.

For example, to find studies in PubMed that are about maternal mortality in Black women we might use the subject heading “African Americans.” However, this research could also be indexed with terms such as “Minority Groups,” “Minority Health,” “Socioeconomic Factors” or “Healthcare Disparities.” The words that you use to search will influence the results you retrieve, so it is important that you brainstorm different search strategies to reduce bias. 

Knowing how to find relevant health research is critical for any project, which is why librarians at the Health Sciences Library System have developed a class, Finding Information in Support of Health Equity Research. If you missed this class when it was taught on Nov. 4, you can view the resource guide, or talk to your librarian for research assistance.

But what if your project also involves finding data about social determinants of health and health outcomes for a neighborhood, city or county?

What do we mean by social determinants of health? Being healthy does not exist in a vacuum; it is not a matter of biology or genetics. Instead, factors such as Economic Stability; Education Access and Quality; Health Care Access and Quality; Neighborhood and Built Environment; and Social and Community Context all contribute to health, illness, and mortality.

Place matters; where you live directly contributes to your health and health outcomes. Finding the data to link health outcomes and social determinants can be difficult for several reasons. Privacy impacts what can be released to the general public. Also, most public data sources do not achieve a level of geographic granularity beyond the county or state level. Lastly, public data sources rarely link personal social determinants with health outcomes.

This does not mean the data do not exist; it is simply a matter of knowing where to look. For example, the linked birth/infant data set from CDC Wonder links birth outcomes with maternal variables including pregnancy risk such as prior C-section, eclampsia and hypertension; as well as socio-demographic characteristics.

For geographic granularity, nothing beats the Decennial Census. The topics are wide ranging, including language spoken at home; educational attainment; income/poverty; housing; and more. (2010 Census, Housing Characteristics, Allegheny County; use the Filter to change the geography, including: zip code, Census Tract, Block Group, and even School District).

To help researchers locate these data and other sources, the Health Sciences Library System is offering a new class on Social Justice and Publicly Available Data (Nov. 10). This as well as Finding Information in Support of Health Equity Research will be offered again spring semester.

Helena M. Vonville and Rebekah Miller are both research and instruction librarians in the Health Sciences Library System, and Rose Turner is coordinator of liaison services.