For nearly a decade, Maine’s State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup, comprising local prevention leaders, epidemiologists, and evaluators, has kept data at the forefront of state and local planning efforts.
About the Collaboration
In 2004, Maine received funding through SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF SIG) program to assemble a State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup (SEOW)—a collaborative group of agencies and individuals focused on collecting and using data to inform and enhance prevention practice.
The SEOW was tasked with creating an epidemiological profile—a detailed snapshot of the substance use and misuse problems affecting the state. SEOWs develop this profile by identifying and compiling city- and county-level data from around the state on substance misuse and associated mental health issues. Communities could then use the profile to identify priority problems and more effectively target their prevention efforts to populations in greatest need.
Evaluator Sarah Goan explains that the first five-year SPF SIG grant “lit a fire in the state of Maine” with its focus on using data to inform prevention efforts. For the state and the county-level prevention practitioners, the SEOW-developed epi profile, which presented their data in a useable format, with clean reporting and clear analysis, set a standard for data-driven prevention across the state.
Ten years later, Maine’s SEOW is still going strong—unlike many states, which struggle to maintain the momentum of their epidemiological workgroups over time. The SEOW has produced a new, updated profile each year that has become the national gold standard. In addition, Maine’s SEOW has applied for and received funding to expand its data-driven prevention efforts by creating an online data warehouse that provides communities, practitioners, and policymakers with easy and immediate access to the substance use and behavioral health data they need to make prevention and policy decisions.
Elements of Success
Don’t Duplicate Other Efforts
To create Maine’s first epidemiological profile, Anne Rogers, then Prevention Coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and longtime DHHS evaluator Sarah Goan assembled a diverse group of prevention leaders and epidemiologists from around the state; the newly formed SEOW quickly generated the required grant deliverable. During this process, Rogers and Goan learned that many SEOW members also sat on the state’s Community Epidemiology Surveillance Network (CESN)—a long-standing group dedicated to tracking substance misuse across the state in order to pinpoint emerging needs. Rogers and Goan reached out to CESN’s leadership and the two groups decided to merge. This consolidation facilitated access to a larger pool of data for their respective projects, and reduced potential duplication of effort and member burnout.
Designate a Point Person for Key Tasks. And Pay Him
Coordinator Tim Diomede is funded specifically to work on the SEOW report: he does all data collection for the SEOW and creates the initial draft profile. Having a funded coordinator “has been very important to our success in getting the reports done every year,” Rogers explains, ensuring that production of the report is a priority and not simply an additional burden on already busy members of the SEOW.
Provide Value for Participation
One of the keys to the longevity of Maine’s SEOW is its ability to offer valuable resources to its members. The epidemiologists in the group provide Diomede with raw data for the SEOW; he then uses his considerable skill as a graphical analyst to draft professional quality graphs and tables to use in the SEOW profile. As the epidemiologists on the SEOW are also well-versed in creating data-driven graphics, the feedback process between Diomede and the epidemiologists ends up creating stronger graphics for both the SEOW and sometimes the work of the epidemiologist. Rogers explains that some of the epidemiologists “use what Tim prepares to enhance their own reports.”
Acknowledge Member Contributions
Goan adds that members also get publicity for their data, since the Maine profile cites all sources, including the name and contact information for the individuals who provide each data source. For many of the members, this publicity has been key in justifying continued collection of the data in their localities.
Use Members’ Time Wisely—and Be Flexible
Maine’s SEOW only meets twice a year—a decision purposefully made so as not to “burden our members,” explains Goan. A steering group comprising Goan, Rogers, Diomede, and Prevention Team Manager Christine Theriault sets a clear agenda for these semi-annual meetings. “We typically highlight one or more substance misuse trends that we’re seeing across the state, and then allow a lot of time for in-depth discussion, debate, and analysis,” says Goan. This approach offers members a unique chance to tap the experience and expertise of their data colleagues, while providing the steering group with the input it needs to move the SEOW’s work forward—without getting bogged down in the minutiae of profile production. Diomede then follows up with members outside of the meeting to generate the data needed for the profile. SEOW leaders also accept that different members will engage with the group in different ways. For example, some members regularly bring two or three representatives to every meeting, while others rarely attend in person, but are dutiful about their data with the group via email. According to Rogers, these differences are to be expected: “Some people are just not “meeting people.” You just have to get their participation however you can.”
Find a Decision-making Model that is a Good Fit
The SEOW also depends on the steering group for high-level decision-making and to move large projects forward. According to Rogers, “Group decision-making can be really great,” says Rogers, “but it can also really bog you down.” To keep momentum going, the steering group sets the direction and vision for the SEOW, and relies on the expertise of its broader membership to refine project goals and generate new ideas. For example, the idea for the online data warehouse originated at a larger SEOW meeting, but the steering group then ran with it, acting as the driving force behind obtaining funding, determining platform and technical specifications, and seeing the project through to completion.
Create Opportunities for Buy-In
With so much of the analysis and leadership decisions made in their small leadership team, Goan, Rogers, Diomede, and Theriault have focused on ways to involve the larger group in meaningful ways. For example, after the SEOW analyzes the raw data it receives from its members, it routinely asks for feedback on how it has been manipulated and presented in the profile. Similarly, with the creation of the online data dashboard, the steering group actively sought input from the SEOW’s prevention leaders to make sure the dashboard would be useful to Maine’s public health practitioners. “This creates buy-in,” Rogers explains. “It also communicates to members that their participation matters.”
Keep Projects in the Public Eye
Maine’s epidemiological profile has been widely cited in media across the state, an effort that Diomede has been proactive about fostering. He regularly sends out notifications to stakeholders and constituents about the release of each new profile. Casting these updates over such a wide swath of Maine’s health-focused professionals has caught the attention of local news agencies. Diomede noted that the profile was cited almost 50 times in the media in the past year. “A lot of media requests come through [the DHHS] office,” says Diomede. “When they do, we make sure to let them know that what they’re looking for is already in the report.”
In the decade since it delivered its first epidemiological profile, Maine’s SEOW has played a critical role in bringing data to the forefront of the state’s planning efforts. Ever aware and responsive to the needs of both its members and the state’s broader prevention workforce, it remained relevant and useful long beyond its initial funding cycle—putting in place systems and structures that were both practical and productive, and creating the tools practitioners need to understand and use the data available to them.
In addition to serving the prevention workforce, Maine’s SEOW has reached the broader public through exposure in the media. They have accomplished this by keeping their focus on producing easy to understand data reports with clean graphics and clearly cited-sources of data. These reports have become the go-to source for Mainers looking for information on substance use and misuse issues.
According to Goan, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. “Twelve communities across the state are current recipients of Drug-Free Community grant funding,” she explains. “All of them used data from the SEOW’s profile in their applications. This was huge...Their grant applications were stronger because they were able to show that they understand the extent of the problems in their communities. It gave them the winning bid.”
By keeping their leadership small, meeting the needs of their members, and publicizing their efforts, the Maine SEOW is well-positioned to keep their track record of success going strong for another decade.