Early in her career, a mentor gave Dawnté Early some career advice that would ultimately change her life. “If you can learn how to analyze and dig into your own data, instead of paying others to do it for you, you’ll be able to do your own research and write your own ticket.” At the time, Early was a PhD student in psychology at the University of California and a skilled mathematician.
She took her mentor’s advice to heart. “The power to go in and look at the data and see things that other people don’t see, and answer questions made me happy,” says Early. “I would spend hours at the lab, all times of the night, just running data.”
Today, Early works for the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC). Her mission is to use data to transform the mental health system so that everyone who needs help receives high-quality, culturally-competent care. Using data to help identify and eliminate disparities in health care access is a passion that’s illustrated throughout Early’s entire career.
Health care access, equity and big data
After graduating with a PhD in human development, a minor in quantitative psychology and a master’s in child development, Early worked for several nonprofit organizations before landing a contract with the California Department of Health Care Services looking into reproductive health care. Suddenly, she had access to billions of records.
“That was when I really discovered big data. Working for the state, I had data that academic researchers and private sector researchers just don’t have access to,” said Early. “We were able to answer questions about equity, about serving communities that didn’t have access to health care.”
‘Data is our superpower’
Now, as the Chief of Research and Evaluation for the MHSOAC, Early is focused on integrating data from all of the public agencies that intersect with mental health. That includes schools, health care and criminal justice agencies, as well as employers, insurers and the larger community, who all have a stake and a role in reducing risk and supporting effective services and care.
"We use data from all these systems to tell a fact-based story regarding what’s working and what’s not, to assess opportunities to improve policies or practices within communities and identify unmet needs,” says Early.
“Mental health touches all of us,” says Early. “It touches our families and our friends. We’re constantly seeing individuals who have mental health needs that are not being met. But we can use data to help. This is what I call using your superpower … my superpower is data. Our superpower is data. So, the question is: How do we do a better job of using our superpower to help people?”
Data tells a powerful story
Early’s OAC team analyzed the data for 64,000 mental health consumers to see if participating in the Full Service Partnership mental health program reduced criminal just involvement. The results?
- 47% decline overall in criminal justice involvement.
- 69% decline in criminal justice involvement for those who had been arrested at least once before.
“This is the power of data to tell a story,” says Early. “Simply put, mental health services reduce criminal justice involvement.”
To learn more, check out the podcast featuring Dr. Early: The Health Pulse: Podcast Series and her SAS Global Forum presentation available on-demand in the SAS® Global Forum 2021: Health and Life Sciences Edition.