As a mother to two young boys, I read my fair share of research on everything ranging from child nutrition to immunizations. My goal as a parent is to be informed and to use available research to make the best possible decisions for my children. As an advocate, I also value data. It helps me identify areas where policy solutions are needed and to develop effective and informed policy positions on issues of importance to children and families. Often, in making the case for policies, I come across an area where data is sorely lacking and critical for helping to improve a condition or problem impacting children. One example is the area of childhood asthma. While as a parent, I haven’t had to deal with childhood asthma, I can tell you that it has come up in conversations with our pediatrician and with other parents. I want to know: How common is it? Are my boys at risk? What are the early warning signs? Does where we live matter? And I can tell you that we don’t know enough about this all too common childhood condition.

Did you know that childhood asthma is actually the most common chronic health condition experienced by children? In 2008, 1 in every 7 children had asthma and this number has grown consistently over the past decade.

Childhood asthma is also costly to manage. Treating it costs $8 billion annually –amounting to more than the total spent on almost any other childhood condition. In terms of indirect costs, this translates to an additional $10 billion in expenditures related to school absenteeism and lost productivity.

Asthma is a condition that not only affects individual families, but can impact entire communities, especially those with high levels of poverty, housing and other environmental risk factors and chronic economic and social stressors. Low income and minority children are especially vulnerable and more likely to experience asthma. Compared with white non-Hispanic children, asthma is 60 percent higher among African-American children, and shockingly, over 300 percent higher among Puerto Rican children!

And asthma is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published in May, from 2001-2009, the prevalence of asthma increased significantly for children from 8.7% to 9.6%.

In order to improve asthma management, and to develop effective evidence-based interventions and prevention approaches, we need to invest in data systems that can inform existing health care systems, and in doing so, help improve the quality of care and inform programs and policies that serve communities in need. To date, this has been a challenge for states.

new report by researchers at The George Washington University (GW) Department of Health Policy finds that current state data systems on childhood asthma are not adequate and lack consistency across measures, data collection time periods and a number of other key variables. Their findings highlight the need to develop data systems that provide comprehensive and consistent information on the effective management of childhood asthma.

In their analysis of CDC-supported state asthma reporting systems, the researchers found that these systems lack comprehensive reporting, and are not consistent in what measures are reported, how key terms are defined for collection and reporting, the time period for data collection, and the way in which information is presented.

There are a number of reasons why now is a good time for states to start building or improving the data systems needed to inform the management and prevention of childhood asthma. For instance, basic data reporting is already in place via important periodic national surveys that provide a baseline for expanded data collection.

We know that data can certainly be a powerful tool for improving programs and services for children. As efforts to expand HIT move forward, it is critical for states to develop sound data systems – including surveillance systems for childhood asthma – and to provide valuable information to public health agencies. Public health agencies need to have access to accurate and timely data on childhood asthma in order to measure the quality of health systems and to identify communities that need assistance or those that are having success in managing the condition. Data can help us identify the incidence of asthma, the effectiveness of treatment approaches, and patients at highest risk who need help in managing their asthma.

The CDC provides a framework for collecting and analyzing asthma-related data. Now is the time for states to build on the data systems we have now to inform the promising practices we want and need to see in the future.