IU’s new data science degree taps into hot health care market

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Search for the job title “health care data scientist” on Monster.com or CareerBuilder today, and you’ll find a smattering of opportunities. But Indiana University expects there to be many more jobs like that in the near future, and that’s why its Fairbanks School of Public Health soon will offer the nation's first bachelor of science degree in health data science.

Pending approval of the Indiana Commission on Higher Education in December, students will start in the program in fall 2017. The first graduates could finish as early as the spring of 2019.

“It’s really a meld of biostatistics, computer science and informatics, all put together to focus on data science at an undergraduate level. We think this pulls together the needed skillset of many disciplines into one degree program, which is in substantial demand and is directly responsive to employers, particularly in Indiana," said Paul Halverson, founding dean of the Fairbanks School, which launched on the IUPUI campus in late 2012.

“We believe this will prepare students well for immediate jobs, and that those people will be immediately employable and useful to the companies who are dealing with very large data sets and the need to immediately distill down and get meaning from that data.”

Halverson credited professor Constantin Yiannoutsos for recognizing the need to bring together biostatistics, mathematical and statistical expertise and apply it to health care. Yiannoutsos said he first proposed the idea about three years ago because of the ubiquitous presence and availability of data and the recognition that there was no undergraduate program that formally trained data scientists.

Yiannoutsos tested his proposal with global data specialists at Eli Lilly and Co., “who immediately grasped the idea.”

The degree will prepare graduates for jobs that combine analytical or statistical application with heavy computational capability, Yiannoutsos said. At Lilly, he said, that might be in data analytics, bridging the division between statisticians and computer scientists. At Indiana University Health, it could be in roles that help the hospital system make sense of trends or that help it extract data and conduct first-stage analyses.

Lilly said it did not have anyone available for comment about the degree. But Dan Rizzo, former chief innovation officer for the Maryland-based data analytics firm Inovalon, said he likes the concept. 

“With data science, to be effective you have to combine the methods to analyze data with a deep understanding of the data you’re analyzing. Which is why a focus on health care data science is a really interesting way to approach it because it combines those two required elements," he said. 

"You have to know how to use the tools and the methods available but you also have to understand health care—how it operates, how data in health care tells the story of the clinical progression of a patient. There’s a lot you can dive into bringing those two things together to solve real problems in our health care world.”

Graduates of IU’s program will enter a rapidly growing field, said Rizzo, who is a fellow at Inovalon after serving as chief innovation officer 14 years.

Some might even end up working at Inovalon, where teams use data analysis to study a range of issues related to health care cost and quality, including which drugs produce the best outcomes for patients and how cost-effective they are compared with alternative medications.

“We would love good candidates in data science,” he said. “That being said, they’re going to have a lot of opportunities out there because health care is a massive part of our economy, and it is booming in a world where data is more and more important.” 

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