University of San Diego brings data analytics to its nursing program

healthcare data analytics
The Hahn School of Nursing is offering a new track to provide healthcare data analysts the context they need to tackle the industry's unique challenges. (metamorworks/Getty Images)

The University of San Diego will add a new specialty to its nursing school curriculum this fall: data science.

University officials say the new Health Care Analytics track will allow a new generation of data scientists to combine a clinical perspective with their ability to work with big data.

It's an important step in meeting the expanding need for data scientists in the world of healthcare, said Jonathan Mack, Ph.D., director of the Health Care and Nursing Informatics programs at the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science.

Organizations historically took the view that data scientists could work with any kind of data and therefore hired people with an MBA and some sort of marketing analytics experience, he said. But the growing volume and complexity of healthcare data have changed the skill set required to enter the field dramatically, he said.

“The type of individual organizations are looking for now have skills where they can not only do classic data analysis but who can actually understand the context—that’s the secret sauce for getting jobs,” Mack said.

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Understanding the context around the data extends to knowing how it’s been collected, the initial point of contact, and what all the data streams actually represent. That knowledge is important because the industry’s demands of data scientists have evolved.

“These individuals are not just sitting in a room staring at a screen, but are participating in the architecture, design and abstraction of the data as well as visualization and analysis,” Mack said. To produce data analysts, the program looks across a range of disciplines, including business and computer science. It’s the only nursing school in California to admit non-nursing students, but the program is unique in other ways as well.

“We have a required practicum, because in order to be employable students actually have to spend some time on a job. This is really unusual, because most graduate programs don’t focus at all on the employment aspect,” explains Mack.

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The problem is, students who don’t spend time in a clinical setting take much longer to come up to speed once they get hired. Meanwhile, healthcare data continues to pile up and more generalized data science skills remain in high demand in almost every sector of the job market. Given the unique variety of places healthcare data lives, it’s one of the few fields where data engineers can’t hit the ground running.

Mack said the practical aspect of the program benefits students and healthcare recruiters. Healthcare companies typically hire students from their practicum sites because they’ve gotten a year of orientation essentially for free and trained the student in the particular skill sets they want to see in their organizations. Meanwhile, students get marketable job skills quickly and cost-effectively, in part due to an option to pursue a combined degree.

“Our undergraduates can apply to our Master’s program and then graduate with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s, saving themselves $35,000 and a year and a half of school, plus come out with salable job skills, so that’s another unique facet of our degree,” Mack points out.