What’s the practical value of big data in the health care industry?

“It’s limitless,” says Raffaella Settimi (above), an associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM). “The first objective among stakeholders—doctors, hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, and pharmacies—is better patient outcomes, and data is playing a big role there. But it’s also being used to address other challenges, such as reducing costs and improving communication. Every health care organization is being touched by data analytics.”

And that’s why CDM and the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business combined their expertise to design a health care concentration within the MS in Predictive Analytics. “Companies are looking for data scientists who also understand the industry. And there’s a huge gap between demand and supply,” says Bamshad Mobasher, a professor in CDM and director of the Center for Data Mining and Predictive Analytics. “Our students are having no problem finding work.”
 
Marty Martin (above), an associate professor in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, agrees: “Provider organizations, like Advocate and Presence, want our students. Insurance companies, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, want our students. Technology companies, like McKesson and Cerner, want our students. They’re all looking for data analysts who can help answer hard questions: What variables predict disease, infections, and injury? Which treatments work best, for whom and why? Which populations are most at risk for illnesses?”
 
Megan Lipps (MS '16) chose the health care concentration because of these opportunities "to make a difference," she says: “Retailing has been using data science forever, but in health care it’s really, really new. How can we make people healthier?  That’s a compelling question.”

Bridging the Gap

The use of big data is all about context, says Settimi: “A data analyst in health care has to ask the right questions and identify the right data sources. It’s not about ‘crunching the data’—it’s about solving problems.” Domain knowledge is very important, and "our students learn a lot that’s above and beyond data science," says Martin:

“In this industry, each data inquiry raises issues—practical, personal, ethical, legal, and regulatory. We teach our students about HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] so they can appreciate whether and how patient data can be used. They take classes in epidemiology, which is the distribution of disease and illness, because it’s fundamental to predicting risk factors. They learn about pathology, diagnostic methods, treatment plans, and disease classification systems.”
 
Also, the health care industry needs people who can take the science of data into a conference room and speak English, not statistics, adds Andrew S. Gallan, an assistant professor in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business: “At the end of the day, health care managers don’t want to hear about algorithms, methodologies, and model parameters: All they care about are insights.” 

Gallan invites speakers to bring real-world perspective and actual data into the classroom. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield lets students work on claims data to answer pressing, practical questions, such as “How can we help members be healthy? How can we reduce premiums and control the rising cost of healthcare by gaining insights into members’ behaviors?” Advocate Health shows students how data can be used to improve operational efficiency within medical centers. And Walgreens introduces them to clinical dashboards that help physicians track their compliance with care and reporting protocols.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

“Every guest speaker who comes to my class says ‘We have positions open,’ ” says Gallan. “While the industry generates tremendous volumes of data, only a small, small amount of it—maybe three or four percent—is analyzed in a deep way. So, our graduates are well positioned to do meaningful work and affect real change in health care delivery and outcomes.”

Lipps would agree. Last year, she was an intern at Press Ganey, helping analyze patient surveys for hospitals, medical groups, and other service providers. “In meetings I’d say to myself, ‘I know this!’  Because of the program, I was so well-prepared.” She recently started a job as senior healthcare informatics analyst with Village MD, a startup that provides analytics and operational support to primary care doctors.

Two 2016 graduates, Andrew Clark and David Thomas, chose the MS as a way to change careers. Clark, a former math teacher, says he was drawn to the health care concentration because he "wanted to be on the cutting edge of a new, growing industry where the likelihood of finding a satisfying, well-paying job is high.” Thomas agrees:  “Non-profit sectors are just beginning to see the value of analytics, and they don’t have enough talent.” He appreciated the cross-cultural, cross-pollination quality of the MS program, as well as having access to real data to work with: “That was really helpful.”

Gallan sums up the value of the MS in Predictive Analytics generally and the health care concentration specifically:  “I think our graduates get perspectives and, therefore, opportunities that they couldn’t get any other place in Chicago.”


DePaul University is one of the country’s most innovative schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. This story highlights one way that faculty innovate in research, in the classroom, and in the community.