Talking public health policy with Laura Hitchcock, JD

You’ve heard of disease surveillance, which identifies and tracks disease over time by collecting information on data such as prevalence, location, and impact. Policy surveillance asks similar questions, specifically about policy – what policies exist, what are their requirements, and are they making a difference in health.  To learn more about Public Health’s ground-breaking work in policy surveillance, I spoke to Laura Hitchcock, JD., who leads Public Health’s novel policy monitoring project called PolicyTracker Law Atlas.

Laura H

Give me an example of a health policy topic you’re surveilling:

A recent project analyzed tobacco policy at King County institutions of higher education, including 4-year and 2- year schools and trade and technical colleges. Among many interesting findings, we found that not all policies are created equal – that there can be weaker and relatively stronger policies. For example, a weaker policy might allow smoking in most places, except for non-smoking areas. A medium-strength policy would prevent smoking in most areas, and have accompanying signs and education. A strong policy would have prohibit all smoking and have clear enforcement.

Policy surveillance sounds like innovative work. Is this a widespread activity among health departments?
There are 50-state policy surveillance systems (see the national LawAtlas system), but we’re unique in providing this service on the local level. We recognize that local laws and policies can be incredibly influential and it is not only important to monitor what exists, but have the ability to measure impact and change over time, similar to disease intervention.

Say I’m a city or other jurisdiction. How can I use the policy surveillance data you collect?

There are many ways these data and the interactive system can be used, so let me mention just a few.  First, a city looking to write a policy on tobacco use in parks, for example, can peruse our city parks’ tobacco policies at PolicyTracker Law Atlas and find different policy language to consider. Second, our data reveal how the policy was enacted – whether it was approved by a city council, parks’ board or in an internal Director’s Rule, for example. This can help jurisdictions figure out what strategies they might use to get a policy passed. And, third, our data can be used to see where policies are outdated or are not effective. For example, many institutions have passed policies aimed at minimizing youth smoking. But when those policies were passed, nobody had even heard of e-cigarettes.  Perhaps most importantly, the system allows monitoring of implementation and enforcement – and is open-source, giving the public, researchers  and communities tools to better understand their local policies and gaps.

What’s your vision for the future of policy surveillance at Public Health?

I want to marry policy data with population health data, so we can see exactly how a specific policy will impact health outcomes. For example, which PE/recess policies make a difference in obesity? How will marijuana business zoning policies impact youth access to marijuana?  Do comprehensive plans with “active” transportation (bicycle/pedestrian) provisions result in more physical activity in that city?  I hope that other jurisdictions will adopt our system – the more policies that are surveilled and matched with outcome data the better we’ll be able to write good policies to improve public health.