Ninez Ponce, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, has been named to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s newly established National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems.

The group, which consists of experts in health care, community advocacy, government, business and public health, is tasked with identifying ways in which data are collected, shared and used, as well as opportunities for collaboration among both public- and private-sector organizations.

Ponce is an expert on immigrant and global health, survey-based research, social determinants of health and health disparities. She is the principal investigator of the California Health Interview Survey, the nation’s largest state health survey, which has been recognized as a national model for data collection on race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and immigrant health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose the striking disparities that exist within our health care system, with issues such as differential access to testing, vaccinations and treatment, and outside of the system with issues such as getting resources related to food and housing support,” Ponce said. “Modernizing or re-imagining how our public health data infrastructure works is absolutely vital in improving health equity, and I’m grateful to be able to join a team that tackles this issue head-on.”

The center has been conducting extensive work on COVID-19 data tracking since the onset of the pandemic. Throughout 2020, the center created several tools to track COVID-19 and various risk factors, such as chronic diseases and underlying conditions, in addition to looking at factors such as insurance status and food insecurity. The aim was to shed light on factors related to case and mortality rates, which California decision-makers could use when making health and economic support policies. In addition, a series of COVID-19 questions on topics such as treatment and vaccine acceptability, personal and financial impacts of the pandemic, and more across a range of demographic and socioeconomic factors were added to the 2020 California Health Interview Survey and, for the first time in history, preliminary estimates were released more than a year before release.

Data disaggregation, one of the commission’s objectives, has been a large focus of the center’s data team, including the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Data Policy Lab, housed in the center. By bringing hidden data to light, the center helps answer questions about who is being impacted by the pandemic, what resources are needed and where to deliver support.

The nation’s largest philanthropy focused solely on health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a history of supporting the center’s data projects and research, including the NHPI Data Policy Lab; the National Network of Health Surveys’ Addressing Health Equity Through Data Disaggregation workshop series, which is providing technical assistance workshops to increase population representation in health data sources; and a study on how California counties responded to COVID-19 under the Whole Person Care Medicaid Pilot Program.

The National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems will use a multipronged approach to explore issues and opportunities for new data sources and measures, data collection on at-risk communities, communicating data to the public, community participation in informing how data systems are formed, and the ability for data to be shared across various systems.

The foundation has challenged the commission to identify improvements in data systems that will better address social determinants and structural factors, which would result in equitable health outcomes. The commission, which expects to release recommendations in fall 2021, includes some of the nation’s leading experts from organizations such as the National Collaborative on Health Equity; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Google; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.