- Dr. Fortune Mhlanga is the founding dean of Meharry Medical College’s new School of Applied Computational Sciences, which just launched in the spring of 2021.
Nashville is fortunate to have a robust health care community with more than 16 health care companies headquartered in the region. We have emerged as authorities and innovators on topics ranging from infectious disease to heart transplants. Still even in such a thriving health care space, we have startling gaps in the health care spectrum that don’t cease at the region’s boundaries.
These gaps and disparities are certainly not new. Indeed, serving the underserved and improving the lives of disadvantaged populations is core to Meharry Medical College’s vision. COVID-19 has brought these disparities to the forefront of the broader health care conversation as infection rates disproportionately affect communities of color and vaccination rates among underserved communities remain disproportionately low.
Researchers, physicians, public health experts and even concerned citizens want to know why—and they are working hard to change it. This issue is playing an increasingly important role in health care delivery and the discovery of new interventions is data science.
Data science can provide new insight to close healthcare gaps
While there are many ways to tackle a problem of this magnitude, data science can help draw insights from past health issues to better predict the future. Data can even help us solve the challenges of a complex diagnosis. Most importantly, it can help us see the full picture and prepare to tackle problems before they arise.
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For example, environmental data can be combined with clinical records to help us see disparities in access to care, and how rural and urban communities are disproportionately affected by diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. We can see correlations, which can lead to better diagnosis, treatment and even prevention.
While data is pervasive, it is also grossly inconsistent. Clinical records from disparate sources can look drastically different, making it challenging to draw meaningful insights. We need to collect, organize and analyze data in a strategic and uniform way so that it can be actionable.
Meharry’s new School of Applied Computational Sciences adds to the solution
We are already seeing the opportunities in health care data arise. Earlier this year, HCA announced the COVID-19 Consortium of HCA Healthcare and Academia for Research Generation (CHARGE). Through HCA’s extensive COVID-19 patient data sets, many organizations alongside Meharry are able to pursue improvements in COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment options to achieve a better public understanding of the disease.
It will take a new generation of specially trained individuals to not only harness the power of this data, but create new standards so that it can be leveraged appropriately and serve as an asset across the health care spectrum. We see an opportunity to build that generation and be a leader in data-driven, health equity-focused research.
Earlier this year, Meharry announced the creation of a School of Applied Computational Sciences (SACS), a critical step in advancing scholarship in this area. Students will be equipped with the ability to apply the power of data science to the goal of achieving health equity, far beyond Meharry’s campus and the Nashville community.
The ability to use technology to improve health care is exciting, and in the right hands, by reducing and even eliminating disparities, it can change the world. Our SACS graduates will be preparing to do just that.
Dr. Fortune Mhlanga is the founding dean of Meharry Medical College’s new School of Applied Computational Sciences, which just launched in the spring of 2021.