Pacific Islander Health Study: Providing Quality Data to Accelerate Health Equity

Posted on June 9, 2016 by Sela V. Panapasa, PhD

Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Summit in California to present Research Challenges for Small Populations: The Pacific Islander Case. The experience was transformative—I found myself in the midst of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) elders and leaders passionately committed to social justice and improving conditions for Pacific Peoples. The discussions that day confirmed the need to show that the health needs of small populations matter. And with that, I began a journey inspired by NHPI stakeholders to advocate for high quality disaggregated data—data that teases out granular information—on the NHPI population. Because information on subpopulations within the NHPI was inadequate at the time, we took up the challenge to create it. And in public health, it is important to collect detailed race and ethnicity data in order to identify health disparities and develop interventions.

Through funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the Pacific Islander Health Study (PIHS), completed in 2012, provides the first representative epidemiological study on the health and healthcare utilization of two Pacific Islander subpopulations—Samoan and Tongan adults and adolescents residing in California. The PIHS showed that statistically reliable data could be collected on small populations and be comparable to data collected at the state and national level. The PIHS also showed that survey methods typically applied to large populations could also be successfully applied to small populations in a cost effective manner.

The PIHS applied a multistage cluster sample framework to collect data on two large Pacific Islander populations in California which could then be weighted to represent all Samoans and Tongans living in the state. By using validated questions drawn from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS), the results from the PIHS compare directly to state and national health patterns, providing an invaluable tool to accelerate health equity and eliminate health disparities. This survey method can now be applied to US-affiliated Pacific Islands.

PIHS results and methodology have appeared in peer reviewed journals and at numerous conferences and meetings, as well as a Harvard doctoral thesis. The 2nd edition of the PIHS study results will be released in June 2016. Key findings will be presented at three upcoming events:

  • 2016 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Health Summit on Reducing Obesity and Related Chronic Diseases. Carson, CA. June 24-25
  • 2016 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Diabetes Coalition Conference on Diabetes and Obesity in Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders Reducing Disparities Through Research – Advocacy – Policy. San Francisco, CA. August 26-27
  • 2016 Hawaii, Pacific, & Global Breadfruit Summit: Breadfruit lessons, breakthroughs and practical application from ground to table to energy. Laie, HI. August 27-31

To receive a notification when the Pacific Islander Health Study is released, visit the HHS Office of Minority Health website at and sign up for OMH email updates.

Dr. Panapasa is a currently faculty research scientist in the Program for Research on Black Americans at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. She is the principal investigator for numerous projects, including the Pacific Islander Health Study and the assessment of federal data on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.