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Dedicated To Data

Dedicated To DataAs an assistant commissioner for epidemiology services in New York City, Tufts graduate Bonnie Kerker is helping to determine how best to address the health problems of the city’s homeless population.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.13.06] In a recent article, The New York Times described 1990 Tufts graduate Bonnie Kerker as “a serious soul with a serious job.” The newspaper couldn’t be more right about the assistant commissioner for epidemiology services in New York City whose latest charge is to assess the health of the city’s homeless population.

"What I most love about this is also what makes it stressful," said Kerker, who is helping to lead “an unprecedented survey” to determine which health problems most often plague New York City’s homeless adults, to the Times. The results, the Tufts graduate explained to the newspaper, will enable the city’s health department to better focus its treatment and prevention efforts.

“Everybody really relies on data in the [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg administration. So you feel like you're needed and like the work that you do is actually being used in policy decisions,” she told the Times. “That's why I went into this field in the first place. It's hard to find a place that really wants to use data to make decisions."

Kerker, who served in the Peace Corps after earning a degree in American Studies from Tufts, began her career as an epidemiologist with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 1995. After leaving her position to pursue a Ph.D. in public health from Yale, she returned with her doctorate in 2003 to analyze survey data that had been collected in earlier years about New York City’s homeless population.

According to the Times, Kerker said her task is to provide context for the data that was collected.

"It's not just a blind trust in whatever numbers we find," Kerker told the Times. "I care about details and spend an awful lot of time making sure our data is accurate, and that we portray things in a fair way. The health problems we face in this city can't be solved by just a categorical approach.”

The health problems affecting New York City’s homeless population, according to the Times, include a much higher H.I.V. diagnosis rate and a higher death rate. “They are in poorer health than health officials, including their own doctors, realized,” the newspaper reported.

"It's unclear whether homelessness comes before poor health or poor health comes before homelessness," Kerker told the Times. “That's sort of a chicken and egg thing. The new H.I.V diagnoses, that sort of blew people's minds. Our job is to try and minimize the stigma — to balance the worry that the data may cause with what we can now do to try and improve the health of a very vulnerable population. To have the data by themselves is sobering and depressing, but having the data and an action plan, which we have, is encouraging. The wheels are already turning."



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