Daniel McCarty spends a lot of time looking into the past – but for good reason. For McCarty, dwelling on the past is critical to moving forward, at least when it comes to understanding population health.
As a trained epidemiologist, McCarty’s career includes extensive research into issues such as obesity and diabetes prevention. His studies have taken him all over the world, looking for answers to ailments that are seemingly ubiquitous. McCarty, an associate professor at the School of Health Care Professions at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and instructor for the online UW Health Information Management and Technology program, says his work has been aided by the revolution of the electronic health record (EHR).
“Epidemiologists’ research is data driven. Once we identify factors associated with a particular disease within a population, we try to modify risk factors and prevent disease – which is our ultimate goal,” McCarty says. “It’s natural to use electronic medical records because they’re great for measuring the health of a population.”
McCarty, who received his bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master’s from the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, says his interest in researching and measuring population health has evolved through the years, nearly as much as the technology he relies on. After graduate school, McCarty went to Melbourne, Australia, to work with Paul Zimmet and other epidemiologists at the International Diabetes Institute (IDI).
“My first project was estimating the global prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Researchers at IDI conducted a large number of studies in Pacific and Indian Ocean Island populations, focusing on the effects of transitioning from traditional to westernized lifestyles. Specifically, this was characterized as adopting diets higher in calories and fat, with lower rates of physical activity,” McCarty says. “We were one of the first groups to predict the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic seen around the world today, thanks to the data from population-based studies.”
McCarty brought his knowledge from Australia back to Wisconsin, where he took a job with the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation. Marshfield was one of the first healthcare organizations in the nation to have an electronic health record – a major attraction for McCarty.
“It’s important for us to focus on healthcare changes,” McCarty says. “Knowing how to use and analyze electronic health records allows you to evaluate population-based health trends and determine the health outcomes and cost effectiveness of many different procedures, drugs, and treatments.”
With his knowledge of and passion for data and electronic health records, it was no surprise McCarty jumped at joining the online UW Health Information Management and Technology program, a collaborative effort between UW-Extension and four UW campuses.
“In the past few years, hospitals have switched from paper to electronic health record systems, but there just aren’t enough people trained to manage the data, and even fewer people to analyze the data. This lack of expertise impacts the ability to improve healthcare and make it more cost effective,” McCarty says. “The UW Health Information Management and Technology program can help prepare graduates to fill that gap in the workforce.”
McCarty says the program gives students a solid background in data management, healthcare terminology, and related systems. Graduates are able to communicate with clinicians by translating data into information they can understand and use.
“In the past, paper health records limited providers to dealing with patients one on one. Now, providers can more easily explore data from groups of patients,” McCarty says. “We can examine data from people with type 2 diabetes at a clinic or in a geographic region, determine which of these people have poor glucose control and which ones are at risk for diabetic complications. We can focus attention on helping these patients better manage their diabetes. Managing and evaluating electronic patient data can result in better healthcare and can control costs.”
As the healthcare industry changes and the need for employees skilled in data analysis grows, McCarty says he believes students with a health information management or technology background will enjoy a wealth of career opportunities.
“Electronic health record systems are rapidly evolving. New software programs are being created to help guide diagnosis, treatment and disease management. The demand for managers capable of handling this volume of data is intense,” McCarty says. “Health information management and technology students will play a key role in managing and using these data, training healthcare providers to more effectively use these systems, and developing or applying new applications. A health information management and technology degree can provide a variety of career opportunities.”