We recently sat down with Dr. Ian Stockwell, Chief Data Scientist for The Hilltop Institute at UMBC, to ask him a few career-related questions centered around the field of Health Information Technology. He offered us an up-close and personal glimpse at this dynamic field.

What is one of the first things you would say to someone interested in entering the Health IT industry?

The Health IT industry is a great career path for someone who wants a lot of opportunities and who wants to make a difference.

What did your career path look like?

Before coming here, I was very young. I started at The Hilltop Institute in 2002, while enrolled as a UMBC undergrad. My initial role was that of a web developer. I eventually grew into the position of a database administrator, then a statistical programmer, a senior policy analyst, and now a chief data scientist.

What do you love most about what you do?

There are times when the work we do impacts people in a deeply positive way. The main reason that I like working with data is that if you build the right kind of underlying framework for policy decisions with data, you can guide policy that affects hundreds of thousands of people. Through data, we can form the basis for the best policy decisions, ones that have ramifications not only across Maryland but across the nation. It’s incredibly empowering.

For me, the most meaningful part of what I do is working with the aging and disabled populations. I enjoy sitting in a room with individuals who are being served by the programs that I’m helping to build. Not only is that powerful, but it creates a sense of meaning and mission.

When you directly impact the lives of others, it makes you a better data scientist. It’s not possible to ask the right questions unless you understand the full picture. For me, the biggest positive impact this work has had is going into those stakeholder groups, listening, and putting myself in someone else’s shoes. This allows me to not only understand the data but to understand what the data can do.

What do experts/hiring managers look for in candidates?

The most important skill most organizations will look for in an incoming data professional is a true understanding of what data represents. In particular with healthcare, there are thousands of iterations of what a single record in a single data set can mean. For instance, are you looking at a person, at a person’s day, at a transaction, or at a single procedure that occurred in a hospital? Even battle-hardened data scientists sometimes lose track of the purpose of data. And once someone loses track of what each piece of that data represents, they’re one step behind. So my advice to candidates is to demonstrate ways you will keep your finger on the pulse of data.

What important qualities are needed in this field?

Flexibility is key. If you remain flexible when applying logical structures and approaches that you learn through programming languages or other kinds of policy questions, you’ll be a step ahead.

It’s also important to be humble and thoughtful and to realize that it’s not just about the numbers in data science or health IT. I remember about twelve years ago when that very concept hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat before massive data sets and realized very quickly that those data sets were people. They were points in a person’s life that are very profound. When you have that intimate realization, it makes you very cognizant of how important your role is, the work you do is, and how much trust there is in you being a steward of these data sets. It’s imperative to be a good steward of the work to be able to make the programs as good as possible so they can help people.

What skills should one build as a Health IT professional?

Health IT means a lot of different things. There’s an analytical approach whereby the focus is on how to build accurate financial forecasts, to create better predictive models, to solve optimization problems, and to make programs as efficient as possible. This focus is quite different than a more operational health IT role where someone is more focused on the user experience.

The thing to keep in mind is that there is always a role for someone with technical prowess. The field is always in need of people who excel at programming and who understand the data. But, the harder thing for organizations to find is those qualities coupled with curiosity, a deep sense of mission and care about the work, and the effect of that work.

If you operate in a state of curiosity, you’ll gain an advantage as you enter the field.

What advice do you have for someone entering the field?

Stay curious. If you are new, you’ve got to be curious. You’ve got to ask why all the time. Why does the data look like this? Why is someone asking you this question? Is there a better approach?

Imagine you’ve inherited code from someone else. So they’ve handed it over to you and you’re supposed to make sense of it. You need to be able to look at it and question if there’s a better way to do it. Be willing to take that initiative. Also, you need to have patience and stay with it. Put in a couple of years so you can understand the broader context of where the data is coming from and what it represents. That’s what you have to do to be successful.

For me, early on, I realized that helping people in my unique way was very important. Having that realization of what drives you to work puts you at a distinct advantage to have a profound impact on any given field. Without even being a clinician or other form of expert, understanding data and being curious about it allows you to have dramatic effects on people’s lives. That goes even if you never get to meet them. And sometimes you do get to meet them, and that’s great.

What would you tell your younger self if you could go back and have a conversation with him about career choices?

If I were to speak with myself sixteen years ago, I would tell him that he must show up and work hard. Some days he’ll feel like it. Some days he won’t feel like it, and those are the days where he must push through.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s difficult to have a profound effect on the world if you’re bouncing around too much. Put in the time necessary to understand what it is you’re trying to do. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to become an expert, no matter how good of a coder you are. To understand the subject matter, you’ve just got to give it time.

Is Advanced Education Necessary?

To get past the practitioner stage and go into a management career, having graduate education behind you will help you shine. An advanced degree will teach you the non-technical pieces of the field. Having that kind of training and credential will help you to not only answer the questions better but to start asking better questions of yourself and others.

Why should someone consider this field?

It’s a great time to be in Health IT because more people are understanding the power of data. They’re willing to make decisions based on the information contained in that data. Even ten years ago, formulating a policy recommendation based on hard data – let alone like a probabilistic model – would’ve been unheard of. Now it’s accepted. It’s not only accepted, but it’s the standard.

The bottom line is the Health IT industry is wide open right now. You can get in at many levels from basic nuts and bolts programming, all the way through advanced analytics and artificial intelligence and that’s very exciting.

If you’re interested in claiming your future within the Health IT field, come see what UMBC’s Health Information Technology graduate program has to offer.

About The Hilltop Institute

The Hilltop Institute is dedicated to advancing the health and wellbeing of people and communities. Hilltop conducts cutting-edge data analytics and translational research on behalf of government agencies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations to inform public policy at the national, state, and local levels.

Dr. Ian Stockwell, The Hilltop Institute

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