So much rests on good data these days. Funders look for supporting data when making investment decisions. Policymakers review it when voting on legislation. Health insurers and hospitals use it to assess the quality and outcomes of health services. In the substance abuse prevention field, data help us identify prevention priorities, target our prevention programs toward those priorities, and evaluate if we’re succeeding or not.
But using data in these ways requires a level of knowledge that must be acquired and maintained, and that’s where SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies (CAPT) comes in. The CAPT is a national training and technical assistance (T/TA) system dedicated to strengthening substance abuse prevention systems and the nation’s behavioral health workforce. And, recently, SAMHSA expanded and accelerated the CAPT’s capacity to deliver T/TA to prevention professionals on gathering, analyzing, and using epidemiological data to support their prevention efforts.
“Good data is incredibly valuable and expectations around its use in decision making have grown very high, very quickly,” said CAPT Director Chelsey Goddard. “But not all prevention professionals are comfortable working with data. Fortunately, SAMSHA has made it possible for the CAPT to offer more help to practitioners working to incorporate data into all aspects of their program planning, implementation, and evaluation. And in the process, we hope to make the reality of finding, exploring, and using data a little less scary.”
According to Craig Love, CAPT’s chief of epidemiology, SAMSHA asked CAPT to broadly increase its epidemiology-related services in the coming year. “We will continue with our current, data-related activities,” Love said, “but we also will build on them, expand on them, refine them, and essentially offer more by way of training, technical assistance, and tools and resources than we could have otherwise. That means not only the CAPT developing and providing new training opportunities and materials, but also stepping up the sharing and dissemination of best practices, and lessons learned, among prevention practitioners across the country.”
One of the best examples of how the CAPT will provide enhanced support to state and community prevention practitioners in these areas is its recent commitment to maintain, expand, and educate potential users about the national Behavioral Health Indicators System (BHIS). The BHIS is a powerful online database that instantly connects users to valuable data sets and presents the information in user-friendly formats. It was developed under a government contract that has since ended, but the CAPT will now take responsibility for maintaining and expanding it.
“The BHIS will save states and communities a lot of work,” said Love. “It provides immediate access to quantitative data on substance abuse and mental health that you can slice and dice and present in many different ways. Imagine you’re working in a community and you need data on alcohol use among high school students in your county. The BHIS can give you that information as raw data or you can elect to print it out in chart or graph form. And you can ask it questions, about the differences in marijuana usage among males and females in your state, for example, and it will cross-tabulate the information and draw you a chart. It’s very user friendly, and we’re very excited to build out the amount of data it contains and show folks how to use it.”
Another example of the many ways in which the CAPT is enhancing its support of data usage is the development and dissemination of two new online courses intended specifically to address the data needs of local-level prevention practitioners. The first course prepares practitioners to design and facilitate focus groups; the second to conduct key informant interviews—loosely structured conversations designed to collect information from people with specialized knowledge or insight into prevention problems or populations.
“Both approaches offer prevention practitioners, particularly those working at the local level, useful ways to learn more about the prevention problems facing their communities,” says Love. “They can help practitioners make sense of quantitative data that comes from surveys. They can also provide information about a topic—like prescription drug abuse in a community—when quantitative data is lacking or doesn’t exist.
But as with any data collection method, using these approaches effectively takes planning and preparation. “What’s nice about these courses is that they provide ‘just in time’ information,” says Love. “Practitioners can learn what they need to know, when it is most relevant to them. They can go through the material at their own pace. And they can focus on only those skills they need to develop.”
According to CAPT’s Goddard, 2014 will be an important year for the development of data-related tools and resources “Providing T/TA on epidemiology and data utilization isn’t new to the CAPT. But we now have the capacity to provide more of these services, to develop more products to support these services, and—perhaps most importantly—to spread the word about the exciting work that SAMHSA grantees across the country are doing to access and infuse data into their prevention work.”
For more information on these services, contact Carol Oliver, CAPT Director of Training and Technical Assistance at firstname.lastname@example.org.