Every time a nurse takes a pulse and notes it on a chart a data point is created. Every time a patient visits a specialist, a pharmacist dispenses a medication, or a doctor delivers a vaccination, data is collected. Data has long been an integral part of health care. But today, huge amounts of data are not only collected, they’re also interpreted and used to make decisions—creating a fuller picture of each patient’s health.
Those who work managing data this way work in the field of healthcare analytics. Healthcare professionals use data to provide individual patients, families, communities, and entire nations with a clearer understanding of their overall health. This compiled information helps doctors and researchers learn how infections spread, helps governments track healthcare spending, and helps hospitals respond to regional issues. To a large degree, the data scientists who fine-tune algorithms and gain a deeper understanding of how to make the most of health data are pioneers standing at the forefront of a healthcare revolution.
Big Data, which refers to massive sets of information stored online, has changed the field of public health. Before the advent of Big Data, health care traditionally referred to data points in small, clinical environments—a patient’s blood pressure, for example, or laboratory results. In-depth studies of large amounts of data took years to undertake, and teams of researchers worked together to look for deeper patterns and meaning. By the time they reached any conclusions, it might be too late to enact any meaningful response.
Now, professionals can tackle major health issues through healthcare analytics. This approach is having a powerful impact on public health, which focuses on preventing disease and promoting positive health on a community level. Public health is not a new field, but it has grown considerably as scientists have learned more about how environmental factors can impact health, education, and overall quality of life. The application of big data to public health allows professionals to better understand how different issues intersect and impact one another—such as the ways in which poverty or smoking can affect health. Data can also reveal what preventive measures could make the biggest difference in improving public health. By identifying trends and correlations, government agencies and nonprofits can save more money, treat diseases more quickly, and help lessen the impact of problems that can cost lives.
Even in the short time big data has been a viable resource, analyzing data has made a difference for public health professionals. Predictive analysis, which uses data to make predictions about the future, has helped cities and communities combat health issues before they even happen. For example, if a city wants to know how much flu vaccine to order for an upcoming season, it can turn to big data. Analysts can look at trends for how many people in the community were vaccinated in years past, combined with other data that might correspond with flu vaccine usage, such as weather patterns or the age of the population. These professionals can then analyze data trends to determine how many doses of the vaccine to have on hand without spending money above what is necessary or leaving citizens unprotected.
Healthcare analytics also involves precision public health, which is the application of new technologies and approaches to advance the health of different communities. This often involves using data to identify and reduce healthcare disparities between different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups. Professionals in this field analyze subgroups within a population, targeting public health initiatives toward those who need them the most. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention references a study that used precision public health to determine that 90 percent of mosquito-borne diseases could be targeted by working on prevention in 14 percent of the areas that were at high risk, using limited resources to great effect. As we learn more about how environmental factors and medicine affect people differently, precision public health will become even more important. Data allows researchers to see both the big picture and the small details that influence public health.
Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health program connects students to research and emerging concepts that are driving big data’s impact on health care. For example the work of Dr. Lizheng Shi, a professor at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University, examines how public health practitioners can apply healthcare analytics in ways that lead to higher quality care and greater access.
Dr. Shi also serves as one of the directors of the Health Systems Analytics Research Center (HSARC), which is a partnership between the Louisiana Public Health Institute and Tulane University’s Department of Health Policy and Management. The HSARC conducts research using data from clinical, administrative, and financial sectors to fulfill its mission to improve the effectiveness of health systems and improve health outcomes. It uses data research methods including data mining, which looks for patterns in large sets of data, predictive modeling, and regression analysis, which helps researchers identify the relationships between numerous variables. This approach to public health generates thoughtful analyses that can help communities, governments, companies, nonprofits, and practitioners.
Healthcare analytics is a key piece of the puzzle for forward-thinking, community-minded public health professionals. See how an Online Master of Public Health (MPH) from Tulane University could set you on a path toward making a real difference in the health of entire communities. As the oldest public health school in the country, Tulane’s MPH program includes a focus on the five areas of public health: epidemiology, behavioral science, environmental health, biostatistics, and management. Find out about the quality public health education students have experienced since 1912, and discover how you can integrate the power of healthcare analytics into your studies.