The Affordable Care Act has dominated headlines in heath care in recent years.

But equally transformative has been the move to online medical records and the use of data to detect problems and develop solutions, says Dr. Ben Spedding, health care administration faculty chair in Capella University’s School of Business, Technology, & Health Care Administration.

When information about individual patients is aggregated into larger data sets based on specific populations and put online, the opportunities for researching outcomes and best practices increases significantly. The result is a host of studies that point the way to more efficient, effective, and economical care.

The application of data analysis in public health and health leadership is still in its infancy—and it holds great promise, according to Spedding, who spent more than 25 years working in health care and social services organizations before joining the Capella faculty in 2011. “In my mind, there’s no more exciting place to be right now than health care,” he says.

Here, Spedding talks about how big data is changing the face of health care in the U.S.—and how that shapes curriculum and learning at Capella.


Q. How have electronic records changed the field?

A. Health care professionals have always been interested in outcomes—and the move to electronic records allows us to access, examine, and analyze data more quickly and efficiently. We can ask questions and get answers faster.


Q. How much data is now online?

A. It’s changing every day. I attended Becker’s Hospital Review CEO Roundtable last November, and one of the presenters said the amount of data available for health care has doubled in the last two years. For health administrators and public health professionals, it’s an astonishing transformation.


Q. What’s the value in analyzing big data?

A. Public health professionals can use big data to serve various populations more effectively and efficiently—whether that’s vaccinating infants or getting the right services and medications to aging individuals.

But health providers are also interested in data. With the Affordable Care  Act, the strict fee-for-service model—where the insurer pays whatever the health care provider charges—is going away. Increasingly, the provider organization now shares the risk of financing the care, which creates a whole different dynamic. Providers want to look at data so they know what works and what doesn’t work.

And finally, consumers want data. Because they’re shouldering more of the cost of their care, they want to know what works and what doesn’t. They’re less likely just to follow the instructions of their doctor, psychologist, or provider


Q. How is such data used in public health?

A. One example is the seasonal flu vaccine. The vaccine was always available in the past, but now public health advocates and health care providers have determined that it’s far more effective and efficient to produce massive amounts of the vaccine and market it heavily than to spend the money dealing with sickness caused by the flu. In the end, the data indicated that it was a win-win for everyone to put money into producing and marketing the vaccine, rather than paying the costs associated with treating all the patients who got the flu.


Q. How has big data created better outcomes in health care?

A. There’s a growing field called predictive analytics. Increasingly, we know how groups of patients—men, women, people of a particular age—are going to behave. Data tells us that certain populations are more likely to skip appointments or less likely to follow treatments. So if a provider can reach out and connect with those patients—Have you taken your medicine? Have you signed up for cardiac rehab? Have you scheduled a follow-up visit?—there’s a greater likelihood that they can impact the outcome.

If you focus your resources on the subset of the population that is likely not to adhere, you’re getting a bigger bang for your buck.

Q. Beyond an understanding of data, what traits are necessary to succeed in health care?

A. Caring for others is at the heart of all of this. Working in health care requires an ability to think critically and consider all your options. It requires good communication skills and an ability to work with others—you have to be a good team member. Whatever your area of interest—whether psychology or technology or business or marketing—there’s an opportunity in health care.


Q. Why is Capella a good place to pursue a public health or health administration degree?

A. One thing that differentiates Capella from other online universities is our focus on the student. We engage students in focus groups. We hear from students through evaluations. We gather input from students and we use it to guide our course decisions and to give faculty feedback on what works and what perhaps needs to change.


Q. How can students put their health care degrees to work?

A. Traditional jobs in health care administration all have a mission to help people be healthy or get healthy. The job opportunities run the full gamut: admissions, finance, analytics, staffing, HR, quality.

Given the changes in health care, some of the new jobs are in big data, consumer marketing, and risk-contracting. Others are related to electronic health records development and management. There are a whole host of marketing opportunities as health care becomes more consumer-focused. It’s a great time to pursue a career in health care.


Capella offers certificates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in public health, health care informatics, health administration, and health care management.