Upstream Approaches to Improve Health Outcomes

September 25, 2020
Kelly Ylitalo
The field of data sciences is a diverse and rapidly advancing field, drawing theories from machine learning, data mining, scalable data storage and digital communication. For many, the term evokes rows of code and researchers locked into numbers on a screen. Kelly Ylitalo, Ph.D., assistant professor in Baylor’s Department of Public Health, however, sees something further—an opportunity to bring a touch of empathy into the often-faceless world of high-tech innovation.

The driving mission and motivation in her research underscores her approach to working in public health and data sciences: “There is a face behind every number.”

Connecting Study to Practice

As a Baylor undergraduate, Ylitalo, BS ’04, experienced a mission trip to Haiti that expanded her view of what it meant to serve. Among the sites the team visited was a farm managed by a Waco organization called World Hunger Relief.

“I didn’t know what epidemiology and public health were at that time,” Ylitalo said. “Looking back, I can see that trip to Haiti as a watershed moment. It was a personal learning opportunity that showed me the critical importance of community infrastructure and public health.”

Sparked with the discovery of professional opportunity, Ylitalo earned a Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in epidemiological science before returning to the faculty of her alma mater in 2015. At Baylor, she found the opportunity to connect her passion to data-driven research.

In the spring of 2019, Ylitalo was awarded a coveted career development grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Providing more than $626,000 in research funding over a five-year period, the grant supports public health research through community partnership—a way, Ylitalo says, “to think globally and act locally.”

Waco’s Family Health Center (FHC) and its network of 15 satellite clinics serves the health needs of nearly 70,000 McLennan County residents—one out of every five people in the county Baylor calls home. Their innovative approaches to clinical care allow physicians to take unique, upstream paths to address health needs, including prescribing exercise at their fitness facility and prescribing fresh vegetables from the farm at World Hunger Relief—the organization that played a role in her undergraduate public health interest.

With an eye toward improving the overall health of the community, FHC and World Hunger Relief partner to provide access to healthy food.

“We’ve realized how acute the issue of hunger is in McLennan County and work to address things like food deserts and food insecurity,” Jonathan Grant World Hunger Relief executive director, says. “Our hope is to address systemic issues that cause this as we connect with partners like Family Health Center and Baylor.”

Within Family Health Center, patients find another resource bolstering efforts to serve community health needs. The wellness center boasts a variety of exercise equipment that can be prescribed by medical staff to improve health and mobility and prevent future problems.

The programs, both launched in 2017, are new and exciting for health practitioners and patients. As stewards of community health and resources, however, FHC wanted to know more. Specifically, they needed data to determine the programs’ effectiveness. That’s where Ylitalo comes in.

“My partnership with the Waco Family Health Center allows me to conduct applied research that is personally rewarding,” Ylitalo says. “The (NIH) Career Development Award facilitates scientific discovery in the areas of health behavior and health equity. One of the exciting pieces of this project is the ability to leverage different data types to understand how we can all be more responsive to the needs in our community and generate actionable results.”

Analyzing the Best Use of Resources

Her work is growing to meet needs in and beyond the scope of her research. To measure specific aspects of the exercise and food prescription programs, Ylitalo and her team have utilized a variety of tools, including a data collection app to reduce manual data entry, quantitative health surveys, qualitative focus groups, and information collected through medical records.

“Kelly’s work is so important in helping us track extraneous data that we’re running on patients, and merging with electronic health records data,” Wendy Cox, Family Health Center community health engagement manager, says. “It’s striking that she knows the value of every part of this project, even the small parts, and always keeps the patient at the forefront.”

Additionally, Ylitalo uses tools that synthesize vast amounts of data to analyze health on a macro level. For Family Health Center patients, that software analyzes exercise referrals, health outcomes of individuals who initiate exercise earlier after the prescription, and predictive analysis that could help Family Health Center better utilize resources and improve health outcomes.

“We’re working with thousands and thousands of data points from different sources,” Ylitalo says. “Family Health Center wants to make the best use of these programs. As an epidemiologist, I’m interested in population health. I hope this work can be helpful to our community and also serve as a model for other communities or healthcare entities who want to explore unique partnerships to support community health in ways that go beyond high quality clinical care.”

Every Person in Every Population

As Baylor pursues R1/Tier 1 status through purposeful focus and investment, Ylitalo envisions increased Baylor impact in global conversations in her field and across other disciplines.

“Research allows faculty efforts to reach outside the classroom and have an impact beyond our campus,” Ylitalo said. “Public health research and its subsequent dissemination can have far-reaching impacts in supporting the health and well-being of local and global communities. As we involve our students in that research process, it also enhances their learning opportunities and skill sets.”

In the last five years, Baylor has invested in this area through the formation of the Department of Public Health and additional faculty hiring throughout the department. That growth, combined with the University’s strategic vision and Christian mission, position Baylor to inject a spirit of empathy and compassion in solutions-minded research.

“I think Baylor’s investment in public health is a natural extension,” Ylitalo says. “Jesus cared for the most vulnerable people. I think public health has a similar mission of making sure that every person in every population is valued and has the opportunity to be healthy. Public health research and a Christian Research university go hand in hand.”
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