For public healthcare organizations, using data analytics to continuously lower costs while improving quality of care is critical to their success, and to the patients they serve.
That’s what makes a data analytics challenge within the course ISA 201: Introduction to Information Technology and Analytics so exceptional. Students taking the course have an opportunity to make a big impact in the local community.
“What sets Bryant apart is that there is always a focus on the business aspect of things [...] combined with close interaction with faculty.”
In the course (part of Bryant’s business core), students serve as consultants for Providence Community Health Centers (PCHC). As part of the challenge sponsored by Fidelity Investments, teams of students, using the Excel and data analysis skills gained throughout the course, analyze a real data set provided by PCHC.
The challenge is competitive, too. Each team analyzes the data with an eye toward improving PCHC processes. Six finalist teams pitch their solutions to leaders from PCHC and Fidelity Investments. The finalists each earn a cash prize.
“I feel very thankful for the opportunity that the PCHC competition gave me to make a difference for the nonprofit organization and its patients.”
PCHC is a nine-clinic nonprofit healthcare organization. Its 575 employees serve 60,000 patients in Providence, RI; 90 percent of its of patients are at or below the federal poverty level.
Real data and a real impact
Work completed by the students in the Fall 2020 semester, the inaugural competition, was so compelling that their solutions were recently implemented, said PCHC Director of Population Health Dan McGuire.
Students analyzed a comprehensive data set, including data that indicates a discharged patient's risk of readmission or death within six months, emergency room and in-patient use, demographic data, and more in order to identify which variables may best predict how to serve patients within PCHC case management.
Bryant students were “able to parse a lot of data and come up with some very interesting answers.”
“A lot of what we're trying to do is to understand who the sickest of the sick patients are, so we can get them the attention and the care that they need,” said McGuire. Bryant students were “able to parse a lot of data and come up with some very interesting answers.”
“I think the significant thing is that this was all real data, as noisy and fragmentary as real data could be. Despite all that, the students were able to develop some very good presentations, and some very interesting solutions, which we implemented. We're very appreciative of their work and the support of Fidelity Investments.”
From the student perspective, the appreciation was mutual. “I feel very thankful for the opportunity that the PCHC competition gave me to make a difference for the nonprofit organization and its patients,” said Ryan Wood '23, a member of the winning team and a Management: Leadership and Innovation major. “I'm proud we were able to generate recommendations with real world implications.”
The Bryant advantage
Each of the six finalist teams contributed to the solutions adopted, a unique feat considering that they are mostly first- and second-year students.
So what helped the students perform so successfully? According to the students and Francis Varin, M.S., Lecturer of Information Systems and Analytics and Coordinator of the course, it is Bryant's philosophy of teaching analytics – and any functional domain – in the context of business demand.
“Bryant does a great job of setting us up for projects like these throughout the curriculum.”
“What sets Bryant apart is that there is always a focus on the business aspect of things, in a much more practical sense than just repeating concepts from a textbook, combined with close interaction with faculty,” says Varin.
How does this combination work? With this innovative model, each group is free to approach the real-world project in their own way. Faculty who are experts in their field personalize the students’ learning, which in this course centers on how to make an impact with data.
“Taking the data, then empathizing with everyone involved [...] really helped us get the best possible recommendations for PCHC.”
“Our faculty are very involved, and encourage students to take their analysis to the nth degree and come up with something that no one knew was in the data, a finding that would be valuable for an organization such as PCHC,” said Varin.
But a key finding isn’t enough, faculty also tell the students. “Everyone only cares so much about the numbers – it's more about, 'How is this going to impact your operations?'” said accounting major Sofia Oakes '22, citing a key takeaway she learned in the course.
“Taking the data, then empathizing with everyone involved — the patients, the staff — and putting those together, the quantitative and the qualitative, really helped us get the best possible recommendations for PCHC,” explained Josephine Schofield '22, a management major and Oakes' teammate in the competition.
Oakes mentioned that the design thinking skills they learned in IDEA were also beneficial. One of the only programs of its kind in the country, IDEA is a 3-day “bootcamp” that all first-year students take. It teaches an innovation process driven by empathy that is used by top companies around the world. “Bryant does a great job of setting us up for projects like these throughout the curriculum,” Schofield said.
Prepared to make an impact: a win-win
The real-world nature of the competition takes learning to a whole new level, which is one reason why real-world preparedness, a hallmark of a Bryant education, is woven throughout the curriculum at Bryant. Another reason: career preparation.
“You can intellectualize the idea, but it really is driven home when you see it for real for the first time, and you have to wrestle with it. And that’s something that also makes students better prepared to go out in the workforce,” said Varin.
“As a former hiring manager, I’ve met many candidates who weren’t able to make that leap, from something academic to the real world application of it. [...] Our students are able to cross that chasm.”
Through presentations that rely on mastery of real-world skills, the course helps bridge the knowledge-experience gap for students.
“As a former hiring manager, I’ve met many candidates who weren’t able to make that leap from something academic to the real-world application of it," said Varin. “In contrast, I think this has always been a strong point for Bryant. Our students are able to cross that chasm.”
And that's a win for PCHC and the community they serve as well. “It's harder than ever to connect with patients. We're looking for every opportunity available to identify the patients that need most help, and this is a great tool to have in our toolkit,” said McGuire.
Fall 2020 Competition Results
- Winning Team (Michele Varin, M.S., Lecturer of ISA): Jake Anderson, Tyler Bartlett, Natalie Epp, Kyle McPherson, Denisse Peralta Medina, Ryan Wood
- Runners-up (F. Varin, Lecturer): Michaela Freddo, Olivia Lemire, Sofia Oakes, Josephine Schofield, Madison Trpcic