Public health experts, physicians, and city officials in Boston, Massachusetts, did not know if the city’s residents of public housing had distinct public health needs, compared with other city residents. Researchers from Boston University School of Public Health, Boston Public Health Commission, and the Boston Housing Authority collaborated (with assistance from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health) to create two surveillance systems to collect health information from people living in public housing. One system collected health information from a telephone survey and the second system linked public housing addresses and information about Boston-area births and deaths.
The telephone survey-based system used the Boston version of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BBRFSS). PRC researchers added a question to the standard survey to determine if respondents lived in public housing or another type of residence. Respondents answered questions about their health, access to medical care and preventive services, health risk, and behaviors.
Compared with people not living in public housing, public housing residents had poorer health. The prevalence of obesity (31% vs. 16%), current smoking (28% vs. 17%), ever having diabetes (12% vs. 5%) or hypertension (32% vs. 19%), poor mental health in the past month (20% vs. 8%), and loss of six or more permanent teeth (23% vs. 12%) was greater for people in public housing than not. Public housing residents were less likely to engage in binge (15% vs. 24%) or heavy drinking (5% vs. 13%). The researchers compiled fact sheets on the findings for oral health, cardiovascular health, and diabetes control and made them available to decision-makers concerned about these residents’ public-health needs.
The other surveillance system linked public housing addresses with birth and death certificates and compared overall, age-specific, and cause-specific characteristics between public housing residents and other Boston residents. Health issues assessed included teen birth rate, premature and low-birthweight births, adequacy of prenatal care, and infant mortality. Researchers are analyzing the data and refining the methodology.
Digenis-Bury EC, Brooks DR, Chen L, Ostrem M, Horsburgh CR. Use of a population-based survey to describe the health of Boston public housing residents. American Journal of Public Health 2008;98:85–91.