The faces behind the data The faces behind the data The faces behind the data

When doctoral student Horacio Chacón Torrico looks at public-health data, he sees the ‘forgotten’ people he wants to help.

Story by Kate Stringer | Photo by Dennis Wise | December 2022

In March 2021, Horacio Chacón Torrico arrived in Seattle to begin his second year of graduate studies at the UW School of Public Health, after two quarters completed remotely from his home in Lima, Peru. Within a week, he received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But as he scrolled through his Facebook feed, he saw posts from friends in Peru who grieved loved ones lost to the pandemic.

Chacón Torrico felt guilt at having so easily received his vaccine, when so many from his home country were suffering. But he also felt a resolve to understand why. Why did Peru have the highest mortality rate per capita from the pandemic? And how could public-health data be applied to improve outcomes and health equity around the world?

Questions like these fueled his research for his master’s in global health, which he completed in June. He is interested in the intersection of technology, data and public health—and how to better use data to reach communities in middle- and low-income countries, which are often ignored when broad assumptions are made about the health of a population.

“A lot of people are being forgotten because of averages,” he says, “so I want to find solutions for global health to measure, at the finest resolution, the health of people who are forgotten.”

Lessons in the Amazon

Before Chacón Torrico came to the UW, he was a physician in Peru and studied biomedical informatics. He first fell in love with data as a medical data analyst, learning how to answer big public-health questions with information from health records.

He also saw how important data could be for underserved communities when he worked in the Amazon jungle on a  program called Mamás del Río (Mothers of the River), during his master’s studies at Cayetano Heredia University in Peru.

In these remote areas, where traveling to the nearest health center required a 5- to 10-hour boat ride, Chacón Torrico was tasked with creating a data framework to help support maternal and newborn health. The result was the use of tablets to track everyone who was pregnant, identify their risk levels, and share tailored messages for each stage of pregnancy and postpartum.

He never loses sight of the fact that in public health, data is about people: the people providing the information and those using it.

Stefan Wiktor, clinical professor, Department of Global Health

While global health aims to share life-improving information with communities, the field must also learn from those communities. On a 110-degree day, Chacón Torrico was working in a village when he heard someone shout, “Fire!” A building was burning. The 100 residents quickly formed a bucket brigade to pass water from the river to extinguish the fire.

But that’s not what happened during COVID-19, Chacón Torrico says. The global community did not work together to extinguish fires burning around the world from the pandemic. Many people and places were left to fend for themselves.

A global education

While data analysis was becoming the centerpiece of Chacón Torrico’s mission to improve health care for underserved populations, he wanted to advance his technical skills and increase his understanding of global health.

He chose the UW for graduate school because of the reputation of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) as a champion in describing, mapping and measuring health burden worldwide—and because of the UW School of Public Health programs that ranked among the top in the world.

These rankings are no accident: Thanks in part to philanthropy, the School of Public Health is home to leading faculty and research projects; interdisciplinary work within the University; partnerships with local, national and international public health organizations that tackle real-world problems; and an excellent job-placement rate for graduates.

The program’s diverse cohort of students—many of them able to attend thanks to critical philanthropic support—was another selling point for Chacón Torrico. Collaborating with people internationally has been one of the highlights of his experience in the program, he says, noting that his cohort included students from Africa, the Middle East, North  America and South America. “Everybody’s experiences and perspectives make the program and learning experience more insightful and interesting,” Chacón Torrico says.

In addition to his research on Peru and COVID-19, Chacón Torrico used his data training to improve health reporting systems in Zimbabwe. As a research assistant for the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH), he partnered with a team in Zimbabwe to analyze information on how an HIV care and treatment project operated across 400 health facilities in the country.

“Horacio has shown great commitment and leadership in public health, in the academic community, in his homeland and in communities served by the project in which he has worked at I-TECH,” says IHME Professor Bernardo Hernández Prado.

The human element

In recognition of his academic excellence and commitment to public health, Chacón Torrico was awarded the 2022 Gilbert S. Omenn Award for Academic Excellence, the School of Public Health’s most prestigious recognition for graduate students.

“Horacio is a rarity in the data world: He combines a nuts-and-bolts understanding of data systems with a deep understanding of the human element of these systems,” says Stefan Wiktor, clinical professor in the Department of Global Health. “He never loses sight of the fact that in public health, data is about people: the people providing the information and those using it.”

Chacón Torrico continues to research what happened in Peru during the pandemic. So far, he’s analyzed deaths by geography and demographics and studied the country’s migration patterns. His preliminary findings show connections between wealth and demographics as drivers of mortality, and these connections may reflect how strict or lenient public-health mandates were during different waves of the pandemic.

Using better data analysis to address public-health challenges continues to inspire Chacón Torrico’s work. This fall, he began his doctoral studies in global health, with a focus on health metrics and evaluation—and with funding for four years as a research assistant at IHME.

Most importantly, he won’t forget what drives his passion for public-health data.

“Every row in a data set represents a human life, or a disease, or some problem,” Chacón Torrico says. “I think we forget that, and I try not to.”