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Finding Epidemiological Data

Prevention planners use data to understand community-level problems, as well as the underlying factors that influence them.

Data are essential to the successful prevention of substance use and misuse. They provide the information necessary to understand the problems in a community, to effectively select and deliver prevention programs, and to find out if these programs work.

Types of Data

Most communities offer an abundance of data that can inform, enhance, and shape local prevention efforts. When data are scarce, there are often ways to fill in gaps. Prevention practitioners must understand the different categories of data, as well as how to find, collect, and use each type, in order to develop a clear picture of the substance-related problems in their community.

When assessing substance-related needs, practitioners rely on data to understand consumption patterns and consequences.

  • Consumption patterns describe how people use substances. Examples of consumption patterns include binge drinking among underage youth, women of child-bearing years who drink five or more drinks per day, and older adults who mix alcohol with their medications.
  • Consequences refer to the many impacts of substance use. Any social, economic, or health problem can be defined as a substance use-related consequence if the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs increases the likelihood that the consequence will occur.

Quantitative and Qualitative Data

Consumption and consequence data can be either quantitative or qualitative.

  • Quantitative data is described in numbers and shows how often something occurs or to what degree a phenomenon exists. Quantitative data measures levels of behavior and trends. It is objective, standardized, and easily analyzed, and is easily comparable to similar data from other communities. Examples of quantitative data include statistics, survey data, records, and archival data.
  • Qualitative data is described in words and explains why people behave or feel the way they do. This type of data answers “Why?” “Why not?” or “What does it mean?” Qualitative data is subjective and explanatory and helps interpret quantitative data by allowing insight into behavior trends and perceptions. Examples of qualitative data include focus groups, key informant interviews, case studies, storytelling, and observations.

Many epidemiologists and evaluators recommend collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, as qualitative data can also provide important context for understanding quantitative findings.

Finding Data

There are different ways to find and collect data. These include:

Existing Data Resources

Existing—or archival—data are usually the easiest and least expensive data to obtain. These data are often available for free through local agencies and institutions, including schools, law enforcement, health departments, hospitals, and social service agencies. Using existing data saves money and helps organizations with limited resources get the accurate data they need without the time-consuming and labor-intensive process of collecting the data themselves. Most states, tribes, and jurisdictions collect and analyze archival data. Some examples of reliable existing data sources include:

  • Vital statistics, such as birth and death certificates
  • Crime and accident statistics
  • Hospital admissions and discharges
  • Student behavior data from school districts or state departments of education

Using existing national data lets practitioners compare local behavioral health problems against a national scale. The federal government has a variety of websites and resources that researchers can access, including SAMHSA’s data collections. These websites highlight numerous studies and research done by top investigators in the field.

To learn more about accessing data routinely collected and maintained by agencies and organizations, enroll in the CAPT online course Go Get It! Finding Existing Data to Inform Your Prevention Efforts.

Survey Research

Survey research is a very efficient way to collect information, since one person can survey many respondents. Survey results provide standardized data that are relatively easy to manage and can be compared across surveys that use the same questions. Surveys can be used to understand substance use patterns in a particular population and design prevention activities.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are structured discussions in which a small group of people respond to open-ended questions in their own words. Focus group subjects (or participants) are chosen to represent a larger group of people about whom you want information: your target audience. Focus groups provide a useful tool for understanding existing data or other quantitative data generated by surveys. They are also useful for collecting information from at-risk populations that may be hesitant to complete a survey.

To learn more about strategies for conducting effective focus groups, enroll in the CAPT online course Focusing on Focus Groups: An Implementation Guide for Substance Abuse Prevention Practitioners.

Key Informant Interviews

Key informant interviews are loosely structured conversations with people who have specialized knowledge about the topic you wish to understand. Key informant interviews were developed by ethnographers to help understand cultures other than their own. A good key informant can convey this specialized knowledge to you. Like focus groups, key informant interviews can provide important information to inform survey design and understand survey findings.

To learn more how to plan and conduct key informant interviews, enroll in the CAPT online course Making the Most of Key Informant Interviews.

Publications and Resources

Find more information on how to find epidemiological data through these resources.

Access more CAPT tools and other learning resources.

Last Updated: 04/06/2016