Pushing the Boundaries
Education was not gifted to Dr. Robert McGrath. On the contrary, he earned it by working his way through school, dividing his time between days in the classroom and evenings tending bar. Hard work, however, did not prevent him from graduating with degrees in Health Policy and Management from Harvard and University of New Hampshire as well as multiple degrees in Social Policy at Brandeis University.
“Having worked to pay for my schooling, I learned that academia and research can be limiting unless it is tempered by life experience and practical application.”
McGrath’s mother emigrated from Ireland and, mirroring her son’s determination, pursued a degree in nursing. They attended UNH together - often taking classes in the same building - and graduated on the same day.
Although McGrath began his studies as a pre-med student, a course called Introduction to U.S. Health Systems sparked a long-term interest in the underlying systems that determine health policy. Exhorted by his faculty to “do good” in the world, McGrath was inspired to marry together education and health care in his career.
McGrath has been teaching at UNH for more than 20 years, starting as a Teacher’s Assistant and eventually serving as Director of Graduate Programs in Analytics and Data Science, a set of programs that he founded and guided for six years. As past President of the UNH Alumni Association Board of Directors, McGrath derived enormous pleasure in meeting alumni across the country. Currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy, he has lost none of his enthusiasm for teaching.
“Universities are safe places that allow people to explore their boundaries of thinking and to have an open and respectful conversation about the world. Teaching is learning. I cannot think of a better job.”
McGrath believes that the underpinnings of knowledge are grounded in information. In today’s terms, that means data. Large collections of data are teachers of their own, pointing to patterns and relationships previously unseen or poorly understood. More recently, McGrath recognized that, “while data science is applicable to all industries, health data science is specific to emerging needs not only within our health care system but also to our individual well-being.”
Inspired by this emergence to start an online graduate program focusing specifically on health data science, with the option to earn either a graduate certificate or a master’s degree, he feels that the UNH Health Data Science program is unique in the country.
Expanding access to education through remote learning provides growth opportunities to working professionals motivated to grow their career but who have limited time or live too far to attend campus classes. Given the rapid acceleration of data science job postings across a range of industries, the professor thinks that a concentration in health care will open many doors to UNH graduates. Establishing synergies with business leaders will allow higher education to “evolve to meet industry needs such as research and best practices.”
According to Professor McGrath, data science has the potential to provide critical evidence that supports patient outcomes, improve workflows, and create efficiencies. For example, data collection and analysis can help supply answers to health questions like “What factors are associated with or predictors of patient falls?”, which can then be translated into behavioral changes to help prevent those falls.
McGrath previously served as Director of the New Hampshire Health Information Center and has directed data programs for multiple NH health initiatives in response to the State of New Hampshire’s mission to create a plan for patient health record sharing between institutions.
“The average patient over the age of 65 sees 14 different doctors and uses between 7 and 20 different prescription drugs daily. The lack of coordination of health care records between caregivers can be dangerous and costly.”
But, while the concept of patient record sharing seems beneficial, issues of privacy loom large. Many patients are uncomfortable with broad-based health information sharing; they want to decide who has access to their records and what information they can see. To further complicate the issue, businesses that build health record databases have concerns about sharing privileged systems information.
McGrath describes how evidence-based research can support decision-making policies that govern hospitals, clinics, health insurance, and government organizations. These represent the underpinnings for the basic pillars of human society that support the most critical issue for every individual – their health.
How does data science help with these problems? Amassing and analyzing large collections of data can help to understand the key drivers of poor health. McGrath strongly believes that, until a society faces these issues objectively, it cannot begin to address them productively.
“Nobody chooses poor health. People are affected by their socioeconomic status, response to stress and poor health behaviors, which are often dependent on education, income, and social forces. Data science shows us the complexity of human beings in a diverse environment.”
Caregivers increasingly use technology to evaluate individual patient care. In the field, however, Professor McGrath feels that technology can also create a disconnect between health care workers and their patients.
“Ideally, technology is intended to assist with health care processes that take providers away from caring for their patients; it is not intended to replace human contact. Algorithms and technology can be useful tools in improving patient care, but healthcare should ultimately be about caring for and helping people”, declares McGrath. “We need to provide humanistic workflows in health care.”
He believes that data and technology tools can “enhance people’s ability to live in the world and with each other” and dreams of a universal health care system – accessible to all levels of society – that is “equitable across socioeconomic layers and respectful to humans and their health”.
While this sounds like a lofty goal, McGrath believes that change is driven by people who think big, a philosophy that permeates his own work and career, and he encourages his students to think broadly about their work.
Asked what the future holds for data science in health care, McGrath looks thoughtful. “We have a tremendous opportunity to improve our understanding of the nature of disease in society and how our health care system can better treat disorders and improve patient care. People can begin to understand the complexity of their own health and find better ways to manage it.”
For his own future goals, McGrath talks eagerly about developing a transdisciplinary focus that would lead to “stacked degrees”, providing today’s professionals with a broader understanding of how diverse arenas connect, and to open up a full spectrum of career options using data and information as the common foundation.
Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the theoretical and practical applications of data science, McGrath never loses sight of the high-level perspective as he poses the eternal question: Will what I do make this a better place to live?
While no one has all the answers, it is important to at least keep asking the questions.
Written by: Gwendolyn Goguelet