The Evidence Base

Informing Policy in Health, Economics & Well-Being
A collaboration with
USC Dornsife Center for economic and social research

How do Student Researchers Become Experts in Health Care Data Analysis at USC? They Go To the Data Core

In the field of health care, some research can only be performed by getting into the depths of databases. So when a question of medicine or administration is asked, an expert must plunge into the numbers – and many of those valued employees are USC graduates, thanks to knowledge gained at the Schaeffer Center’s Data Core.

The Data Core is an invaluable repository of health-related surveys, measurements, insurance claims, hospital records and so much more, as well as the analytic computing horsepower that can crunch those numbers.

The Data Core also is a hands-on laboratory for students who have as a requirement of graduation the expectation they will know how to make rows and columns line up neatly to tell a greater story. “Our students are so highly prized because they can come in and do that kind of detailed analysis – do it or oversee it,” said Dr. Jeff McCombs, Director of Graduate Studies at the Schaeffer Center. He joked that with Trojans now working for pharmaceutical companies, consulting companies and large HMOs, at a typical meeting of health-care administrators discussing whether to adopt a new therapy, representing all sides of the deliberations are USC grads who know each other.

“What students are learning at Data Core is essential for the rest of their careers,” McCombs said.

The Data Core now offers the grad-level class Programming Methods for Empirical Analysis of Health Data (Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy –PMEP- 547). Patricia St. Clair, Director of the Data Core, said students are assigned, as a final project, the task of replicating a previous health care-related paper using the resources at hand.

“I think it’s practical to come out of the class with some exposure on how to think about the data,” St. Clair said.

For one, she added, students should learn caution, as these databases were not compiled for any specific study. Therefore, the numbers can mislead: People who first appear to have enjoyed extraordinary health – no insurance claims for years on end! – may have simply been without coverage during that time. “You have to make those distinctions: what’s missing and what’s a zero,” St. Clair said.

If this sounds like catching a student a fish vs. teaching a student to fish, it is – and unapologetically so. But Dr. Neeraj Sood, the Schaeffer Center’s Director of Research, said the Data Core curriculum is so thorough, it’s as if the students first are taught to make fishing poles before being led to the pond.

Said St. Clair: “It’s a lot to absorb in a semester and they’re not going to be perfect and ready to roll as soon as they’re done with this class. But it gives them some confidence.”

Of course, with the databases containing personal/confidential information, safekeeping is of utmost importance to those who have donated them to USC, be they private insurers, hospitals or the federal government. That’s the responsibility of Data Core. “It’s such a relief to faculty to have someone handling that: security, data use agreements and all of the restrictions,” said McCombs.