For the first time, Common Ground Health is analyzing qualitative responses to its public health survey in-house—allowing for a deeper, more precise look at what people described as their biggest health concern over the past 12 months. 

Responses to the My Health Story 2022 Survey came from people in a 12-county region, with 2,374 of them answering the biggest health concern question. Their answers range from a couple words to paragraphs of descriptive anecdotes. 

“It’s a very careful and slow process because we’re working with a massive amount of data, and we want to uphold the authenticity of what people wrote instead of potentially inferring something that’s not there,” says Dr. Sarah Farash, a senior research associate at the agency. “This work is usually done in an academic setting. The way we’re doing it is really powerful.” 

Using new software, Common Ground Health is able to read and condense every written response before attempting to identify patterns. Dr. Farash has met multiple times a week since the spring with health planning research analyst Zoë Mahlum to reflect on findings in an iterative fashion. 

In addition, because quality assurance is critical, their work is reviewed internally to ensure procedures are followed while summarizing major themes and sub-themes derived from the survey’s answers. 

This bottoms-up approach has been well-documented and will be used when analyzing responses to other open-ended questions in the survey. Those questions asked respondents to describe whether they’ve felt disrespected or were treated unfairly while getting medical care, and to describe what like best about their neighborhood. 

Mahlum points out that the new software allows for the creation of data sets with descriptors. This provides for a deeper understanding of how different demographics and social determinants of health interact with the greatest health concerns reported.  

“The richness of these results isn’t just in who we’re talking about, but how we’re talking about people,” says Dr. Farash. 

The survey questions will be used in combination with the open-ended questions to give more context to people’s specific responses about their biggest concerns for their health. For example, Mahlum and Dr. Farash plan to look at the types of supports reported by survey takers and how that relates to their answers to questions about their biggest concerns for their health.  This is one way to “go deeper” when looking at patterns in the respondents’ stories.   

Analysis of responses to the open-ended questions will continue. 

Says Dr. Farash: “We could unpack the stories in these data sets for years. We look forward to taking this to communities and seeing what they would like to unpack, as well.” 

The team has already begun summarizing the themes for each county and will be meeting with the Chemung County Public Health Department to pilot the presentation. 

Common Ground Health plans to release a spotlight on the overall findings in the coming months.