What Tracking Can and Can't Tell Us

What Tracking Can Tell Us

Tracking is an important tool in environmental health and public health. It can be used to:

  • Respond to public inquires about environmental hazards, exposures or health conditions.
  • Identify unusual patterns and trends.
  • Develop or evaluate public health programs, regulations or policies.
  • Identify data quality issues and improve data.
  • Explore relationships among environmental hazards and health outcomes.
  • Generate hypotheses for research.
  • Provide data to researchers for studies and environmental health investigations.

What Tracking Can't Tell Us

Tracking alone can't tell us if something in the environment is causing a disease or health condition in most cases.

Researchers often use tracking information to identify trends and patterns and to pose questions for further research. So, a map showing disease rates, for example, is more likely a starting point. If we see major differences, we may pose additional questions such as:

  • Are rates higher in any particular age or race/ethnicity group? Does the geographic pattern vary by age or race/ethnicity group?
  • Do other factors correspond with higher disease rates? For example, are disease rates different in urban areas or rural areas? What about areas with higher or lower income or education?
  • What about changes in disease rates over time? Maps are good for identifying geographical differences, but not so good at showing changes over time. Graphing disease over time may show if the rates are consistently getting higher or lower. Do rates vary from year to year? Are there seasonal effects within each year?
  • What do we know from the scientific literature about factors that influence this disease? How do these factors vary geographically and over time?

The answers to some of these questions may lead us closer to understanding why some areas have higher disease rates than others. Or, they may help us identify where we need more information.

The tracking research projects being conducted as part of New York State's Environmental Public Health Tracking Program (EPHT) are examples of how basic tracking has led to development of additional tracking and epidemiological investigations.