July/August 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 6

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NCHS Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Virginia S. Cain, National Center for Health Statistics

For 50 years, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has served as the United States’ principal health statistics agency, compiling statistical information to guide actions and policies to improve the health of our nation. Over the years, the data collected on births, deaths, marriages, divorces, family formation, health status, risk behaviors, health care, and numerous other topics have spawned countless sociological research projects and dissertations. The vital records, in-person interviews, and collection of biomarker data have served as benchmarks for many of the other important social surveys in the field today and historically.

NCHS was established as an organization in the Public Health Service in 1960 through a merging of the National Health Survey and the National Office of Vital Statistics. Since 1987, NCHS has been part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, NCHS is one of the 13 "principal statistical agencies" of the U.S. Federal Government.

NCHS Data Sets

Many sociologists are well acquainted with many of the NCHS data systems. The National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) forms the core of what we know about births and deaths in the United States. Data from the NVSS permit the Census Bureau to make intercensual population estimates. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) provides context for the changes seen in areas such as teen births and infant mortality. Family sociologists rely on the NSFG to understand family formation and patterns of contraceptive use.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), itself more than 50 years old, has led the way among surveys collecting biomarker data with its physical exams in mobile examination centers. It is the only national data source on nutritional status and a range of undiagnosed conditions. Much of what we know about obesity on a national level and the factors related to it come from NHANES.

The National Health Interview (NHIS), conducted annually since 1958, not only provides information on the health status of the U.S. population, but also has been in the forefront of methodological research vital to all surveys. The recent research estimating the number of cell phone-only households is essential to all those who collect and analyze data from telephone surveys. NHIS data on health insurance coverage of the population have been vital to the policy debates in those areas. The National Health Care Surveys have been critical in measuring disparities in the use and quality of health care and the effects of policy changes.

Sociologists interested in aging research have on relied on the series of National Nursing Home Surveys, which began in 1969, to examine the characteristics and health conditions of nursing home residents and characteristics of the nursing homes themselves.

However, as important as data collection is to our mission, it is only one component of an overarching program to monitor the nation’s health. NCHS also maintains an active program in survey research and methodology that is used to address key issues in survey design, such as how to take best advantage of advances in technology for conducting surveys while ensuring the protection of the privacy and confidentiality of survey respondents.

Evolving and Meeting Needs

While the data collection programs have evolved over the years, the founders of NCHS and its data systems showed remarkable foresight in how to monitor and understand the health of the U.S. population. Yet, the opportunities for research and data dissemination have substantially changed over the years.

One of the challenges we now face is how to meet researchers’ demands for increasingly finer geographic and other detail in the data sets while maintaining the data confidentiality. In order to meet those needs, we operate an extensive program of Research Data Centers (RDCs) throughout the country, to provide researchers with access to the fullest range of detailed data below the level generally releasable to the public. In addition to the onsite RDCs, NCHS has developed a remote access system to allow researchers to use restricted data from their own worksites. We have developed and maintained interactive web-based tools such as Health Data Interactive, for providing tables, data files, and reports. We provide tutorials to guide users on how to access and use complex NCHS data sets such as those produced through our National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

The above NCHS program activities—and many others—are described in much greater depth on the NCHS website at www.cdc.gov/nchs. This website, which we are constantly working to improve, allows users to learn about and take fullest advantage of the wealth of NCHS resources.

2010 National Conference on Health Statistics

Come straight from the ASA Annual Meeting to join NCHS in celebrating 50 years at the 2010 National Conference on Health Statistics, August 16-18, Washington, DC www.cdc.gov/nchs/events/nchs.htm. The Conference will offer a day of hands-on and educational workshops for data users. Two days of scientific sessions will address major issues in health statistics and bring together key researchers and policy makers. It is an opportunity to hear about what is in the future for NCHS and to talk to senior staff of the Center. For more information, contact Virginia S. Cain at vcain@cdc.gov.

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