Faculty Spotlight: Nicholas Flavin, MPH, Health Informatics Program

Nicholas Flavin, MPH faculty member, MSIN program at CGPS Nicholas Flavin, MPH is a faculty member with the Health Informatics program at CGPS. Here, he talks about his professional experience and how that, combined with his passion for art, makes teaching a joy for him.

You have an MPH – what drew you to teaching in the field of health informatics?

My background is in healthcare, research, and teaching. I began as a teacher and I earned my MPH when I switched careers and started working in healthcare. After a while, I found myself being drawn to the health informatics world of data and data analytics.

With the advent of the Electronic Medical Record (EMR), health informatics has become a huge piece of the healthcare puzzle. Working in the field of health informatics has really allowed me to follow my passion for analysis, research, and evaluation. Currently, I work at Southern Maine Healthcare where I provide business intelligence analytics to promote quality outcomes and improve patient safety and experience.

I do that by using statistical, algorithmic, and visualization techniques to support system-wide improvements in clinical performance. I also model population health through extensive data mining of the EMR platforms eCW, MEDITECH, and Epic. Some of the tools that I use include SQL, SAS, Tableau, and Alteryx.

Teaching at UNE Online in the health informatics program has allowed me to embrace my love of teaching as well as my passion for data analysis and health.

What do you teach?

I teach two Health Informatics courses, Database Design, Standards, Access, and Modeling (HIN 620), and Health Data Analysis, Visualization, and Storytelling (HIN 715).

Teaching Database Design, Standards, Access, and Modeling is a natural fit for me – I’ve been working in database design since 2003. In the course, we explore database basics such as the relational algebra and data model, schema normalization, query optimization, and transactions. We also assess what some of the current needs in database design are, and discuss the types of robust modeling that can transform raw data into useful information.

Teaching Health Data Analysis, Visualization, and Storytelling has also been extremely rewarding. I have a side business creating original paintings, screenprints, and murals inspired by nature – and I have found it very satisfying to be able to use the right and left sides of my brain to combine structured data with my graphical techniques to create a visualization.

In my full-time job as a Senior Clinical Data Analyst at MaineHealth, I get to use that structured data and visualization all the time, translating numbers to make them work, and make sense. Visualizations are not about necessarily looking pretty – their usefulness lies in being able to communicate information from large datasets quickly and effectively. It’s really become my passion over the last few years.

How do you foster a sense of community among your students?

It’s amazing that I have students all over the world taking these courses – but that also poses a challenge. Classes are asynchronous, so there is not a singular or particular time that the whole class is logged in. So I have to be creative.

Luckily the student body is phenomenal. They’re very active in the class, communicating with each other, and on the discussion boards. For my part, I frequently chime in on discussion boards and pose questions to get my students thinking and involved that way. And if I see that folks are not participating as much as they could, I always leave a line of communication open.

It’s encouraging to see my students use the discussion boards to the fullest. It really helps build those communication skills. It’s important to be able to work with the people around you to get to a common goal. In the field, or actually, in life in general, you need to have some sort of network of people that you can run questions past, rely on, or really get to network with. I try to encourage that right off the bat, as soon as the class starts.

What do you feel sets the UNE Online Health Informatics program apart from other programs?

I find that the students are just phenomenal. UNE attracts a high caliber and highly engaged group of students – which makes it easy to get right into each course. My students ask very in-depth amazing questions and have great conversations too.

It’s really a fantastic program, and the courses are great – they’re really challenging and cover important material.

You have a public health background – what kinds of backgrounds do your students have?

A lot of my students have an IT background, and I have seen a fair amount of nurses and clinicians come through the program. But I’m starting to see students with a lot of different backgrounds becoming intrigued with what can be done with health informatics. I’ve had students who were statisticians, artists, and I even had a realtor in one of my classes.

People with increasingly diverse backgrounds are becoming interested in health informatics – and having a mix of different backgrounds makes for lively discussions on the discussion boards, which is great.

If you’re a career-changer trying to make that leap into healthcare, this is a really nice way to do it, because you don’t necessarily need a clinical background. You need to know how to manipulate and interpret data and then communicate that – and you need to know how to collaborate with people who have varying degrees of education and varying levels of clinical backgrounds.

In my opinion, healthcare in general needs a stronger data analysis and health information presence – so attracting a wide variety of people is always good.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their career in health informatics?

Right now, in the field of health informatics, you have an opportunity to really make an impact either in quality of health, patient safety, or even within one of the key health outcomes of your community.

You’re not working with groups of people from the other side of the country or the world – you’re actually very localized – so you have the opportunity to have a significant and direct impact in your local community.

What advice would you give to a student looking to become an online student?

Quite frankly, the largest piece of advice I have is to make an effort to really understand what data are and the key components of it. Communication is also an important aspect of this field. I have some colleagues who are amazing at crunching numbers, but they don’t have the ability to really share that information. That, to me, is a cornerstone of the entire health informatics field.

Second, as an online student, I would advise you to approach the online environment as you would any other class, but be sure to leverage the strengths of a course that has been purposefully designed to be online. Take advantage of the discussion boards and use them as an opportunity to meaningfully connect with other students. Everybody’s in the same boat – it’s a very safe environment and everyone’s there to learn and to grow.

What areas do you expect to see growth in the health informatics field in the next 5-10 years?

One of the first things that intrigued me into switching careers and getting involved in the healthcare arena is the absolutely phenomenal amount of data that’s being collected. The electronic medical record is here, and it’s not going away. Nurses, doctors, administrators, and even public health officials rely on having evidence-based medicine and practices – and that evidence is based on what’s coming out of the EMR system.

I think the real growth of opportunities will be in research and design – the skill of being able to capture data. There’s huge room for growth for professionals such as database administrators within the field to take over some of the understanding of how databases are designed and structured.

There’s always going to be room for analyst roles as well – people who can take the data that’s been extracted from the database and visualize that data in a way that’s meaningful for key stakeholders to make decisions.

The sky’s the limit right now as far as opportunities and growth, simply because it’s such a new system that we’re dealing with. There’s so much possibility, and we are going to be relying on these systems more and more.

It’s really a fascinating time to be associated with health data, and I think there’s going to be a lot of room for some really exciting breakthroughs in the next five to 10 years.

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