Columbia Pediatricians Join NYC Health Equity Initiative

August 19, 2019

In New York City, children from low-income neighborhoods have higher rates of asthma and obesity compared to kids from wealthier neighborhoods. Two pediatricians at Columbia University were recently selected to join a citywide initiative to help reduce those disparities.

The initiative—called Health Data for New York City (HD4NYC)—is giving physician-scientists from academic centers across New York City unprecedented access to a trove of health data collected by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to use in research. 

Initially, the project will focus on inequities surrounding birth and childhood among marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to increase health equity among the city’s many populations.

HD4NYC participants Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, MD, MS, and Jennifer Woo Baidal, MD, MPH, assistant professors of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, recently spoke to the CUIMC Newsroom about the project.


What kinds of data does the Department of Health have that can help address health inequities?

SLD: The cool thing about this project is that there are so many data sets available for use, many of which I wasn’t aware of before. We are just beginning to familiarize ourselves with the specific data and variables that have been collected and the possibilities for merging them to create new, unique sources of data. One of the data sets we will be using is the NYC KIDS survey, which included approximately 7,500 families with at least one child. 

Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, MD, MS (CUIMC)

It would be impossible for me and my team to gather this much data on our own without substantial grant funding and decades of data collection.

JWB: Our plan is to harness linkages between a variety of data sources, including environmental data, health survey data, and vital statistics (birth and death records). For example, the NYC KIDS survey, which is in its third wave of data collection, is a unique data source that allows us to examine the root causes of health disparities and provides metrics to examine how well we are achieving health equity.


How, and why, did you get involved in the project? 

SLD: The program was announced over a year ago, and the New York Academy of Medicine put out applications for people to join their working groups. I was selected because of my research on the health effects of pollution on children, which disproportionately affects minority groups. I’m currently working in a group looking at the impact of the environment on child health, with a special emphasis on asthma. 

The highly collaborative nature of this project is a strength, and the scale of the research is much larger than can be accomplished at any one academic institution. Personally, the project requires more of an epidemiological, population-based approach, and that will add a new dimension to my clinical research. 

JWB: The Academy didn’t ask for proposals on what the researchers wanted to study; instead, they chose people with a history of publishing on health inequalities. 

Jennifer Woo Baidal

My research is relevant because it focuses on finding ways to improve nutrition and reduce consumption of sugary beverages in low-income communities, which have higher rates of childhood obesity. 

I am excited to begin working with all of the data collected by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This data represents children across all five boroughs of New York City. The program also gives us the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of people with different perspectives, including governmental, academic, and community representatives. Together, we are formulating a research agenda that will help us understand key drivers of health inequity and identify potential targets for future policies and programs to address those disparities among New York City children.


How does the program work?

JWB: Currently, we are meeting in working groups to learn about what kind of data we can access and talking about what kind of research we can do with it. 

Since the program was launched, we have developed a list of critical research questions and formed sub-groups to create proposals that will use DOHMH datasets. The sub-group members are driving the development of research questions, hypotheses, and methods, and the larger group is providing feedback and advice. We are also getting a tremendous amount of support from program leadership and investigators to navigate the various structures and programs within DOHMH. This access to experts and data will accelerate our ability to achieve child health equity in New York City.


Will these data allow you to pursue new research questions or enhance your own research? 

SLD: I’m planning to work on research that is related to my own research interests. I’m the only pediatric pulmonologist in the group, but I’m not the only person interested in asthma. The program may allow me to broaden my research to look at health disparities, not just in asthma. 

JWB: Being a part of HD4NYC will broaden my research portfolio to include new projects focused on child health equity. It is also enhancing my ability to understand and access citywide data for my own research, which focuses on reducing childhood obesity. Ultimately, the new partnerships with academic and government collaborators from this program will help promote health equity for New Yorkers.


Additional Information

The program, led by the NYC Department of Health and the New York Academy of Medicine and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was launched in the spring.

Support for Dr. Woo Baidal's and Dr. Lovinsky-Desir's participation in the HD4NYC is being provided by the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons' Department of Pediatrics, which champions research and advocacy surrounding the social determinants of health for children and families.