The Impact of COVID-19 on Data Science in Health Care

Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Alum's expertise heightens the Coronavirus conversation

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the health care industry has used data science tools to monitor and mitigate the impact of the coronavirus that is at the heart of this pandemic. Researchers and data science professionals are using data to build accurate models of the virus’s spread, conduct antibody discovery and track the availability of hospital resources.

Cynthiya Ruban ‘15 MSc, ‘17Ph.D. is a Global Health Economics and Outcomes Research Manager for Xcenda, a strategic consulting and field reimbursement service organization that is part of AmerisourceBergen Corporation. She is a graduate of UNC Charlotte’s Health Informatics and Analytics master’s program and she earned a doctorate from the University in health services research. Recently, she discussed the effects of COVID-19 on the field of data science and throughout the entire health care industry.

The following responses are opinions expressed by Dr. Ruban and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

First, how did UNC Charlotte prepare you for a career in health care analytics?

I chose UNC Charlotte’s Health Informatics and Analytics (HIA) program to obtain the skills necessary to help propel my career in health care. The HIA program combines a robust curriculum in conjunction with an opportunity for applied learning which set me up for success by providing a well-rounded approach to solving data-driven problems.

Has COVID-19 prompted changes in your current professional role?

At Xcenda, I lead, coordinate and collaborate on a broad portfolio of global health research projects to support the launch of products across a range of disease areas. While my daily responsibilities have not changed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I have seen the impact on my customers—pharmaceutical manufacturers. Already, manufacturers are grappling with disruptions to their businesses due to the outbreak, with many anticipating financial and operational consequences, including disruptions to the supply chain.

What kinds of lasting industry changes are you and your customers preparing for as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health care industry is going to be vast. I think the virus will be a catalyst for and accelerate the long-anticipated “digital transformation of health care.” We’re already seeing the health care industry adopt an aggressive contemporary service mindset with technologies and tools that come with it. Some of these include use of artificial intelligence and informational chatbots, cross-industry collaborations, innovative care models, predictive analytics and knowledge management, progressive, real-time communication, coordination and collaboration tools, remote work, self-service diagnostics and self-care, and telehealth and telemedicine

The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University and others are collecting data to better understand disease transmission, infection rates and more. In what ways are data scientists using big data to improve global knowledge of COVID-19 and its lasting impacts?

The role of data science is essential to making data-driven observations on how the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading. With epidemics, clinical data can be highly variable in terms of quality as well as consistency; complications of this include cases of false-positive patients. Nonetheless, governments and researchers are relying increasingly on data and prediction models in the epidemic setting.

Data scientists are using big data for machine learning algorithms capable of generating millions of therapeutic antibodies to find treatments for COVID-19 with a high probability of success. Conducting antibody discovery in a lab typically takes years; however, these algorithms identify antibodies that can fight against the virus in just a week. This is just one of many ways data-driven solutions are accelerating the speed at which coronavirus therapies are discovered, developed and delivered.

Do you think COVID-19 will alter the role of data scientists in the health care industry? What does that future look like?

COVID-19 will not alter the role of data scientists, rather it will clarify the demarcation of roles within the health care industry. Three key trends are influencing the role of data scientists in health care: 1.) The eruption of data: Given that COVID-19 will accelerate the “transformation of healthcare” there will be a torrent of data, which will function as rocket fuel for our data science models, giving rise to better models as well as new and innovative use cases. 2.) The proliferation of machines: Machine learning algorithms and software have advanced rapidly in the last few years and have proved to be extremely valuable during this pandemic. Moving forward, I believe there will be a strong dependency on machine learning tools and advancements, which will influence directly the usefulness and capabilities of data science. 3.) The sky's the limit: Cloud computing is creating a strong trend in the field of data science, offering data scientists the ability to access limitless processing power and storage capacity. As the field of data science continues to evolve, we might eventually see the entirety of data science being conducted solely in the cloud as a result of the sheer volume of the data and the level of computing resources required to process the data.