Bridging expertise and practice: Data science in healthcare

With the increasing importance of data science in healthcare, skill requirements for professionals are evolving, alongside a growing demand for data specialists. Facilitating collaboration between data specialists and healthcare professionals, together with the right training in the use of health data and artificial intelligence, is crucial. How can we ensure that healthcare professionals acquire these essential skills? Tanja de Vries and Rik Wisselink-Bijker, data specialists at UMCG, give their insights.

Limitless or limited 

Interest in topics such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science has been growing in recent years, and it seems to offer limitless possibilities. De Vries explains "Many people who don't know AI well think it's magic. The name is also somewhat misleading; it's not that smart at all, it's really just a computational model. But it is definitely a hot topic now and study programmes are filling up fast. However, the choice for healthcare is not yet in high demand, nor is it hugely encouraged. Despite the immense potential of data science in this sector." De Vries joined UMCG's Data Science Center in Health (DASH) as a data scientist in January. She is closely involved in setting up the DASH IT Lab and supports various research projects. She works extensively with departments and researchers to gain valuable insights from data but also to understand key needs in this area.

De Vries emphasises the value of data science in healthcare. "You can see it as a tool that can move healthcare forward," she says. "From supporting diagnoses to creating summaries of consultations with patients, data science and AI can streamline processes and ultimately improve patient care."

Tanja de Vries

High-quality data collection

A strong fundamental understanding is crucial to extracting valuable insights from health data. "Ensuring data quality is a fundamental component of data science," De Vries stresses. "Healthcare professionals need to understand this at a basic level. Once we set up an AI model, healthcare professionals will eventually work with it and so they need to understand how to interpret the output of such a model. Although AI can perform various tasks, its capabilities are not limitless. Healthcare professionals need to accurately store and manage health data. If this process is not done accurately, data specialists like us cannot use the data effectively. Therefore, collaboration between data specialists and healthcare professionals is essential."

And this is exactly where Wisselink-Bijker comes in. Since 2023, he has been committed to educational initiatives in data science and AI at the UMCG. According to him, healthcare professionals are on the one hand very involved in data science, yet at the same time distanced from it. "It may sound contradictory, but take electronic health records (EHRs) for example: these are already used in research, but that research is not always done by doctors. These systems process huge amounts of data, but not everyone is skilled at using them effectively."

Integrate data science into healthcare education

With data science basics becoming increasingly important for healthcare professionals, the question arises: how can we properly help them acquire these crucial skills and knowledge? Wisselink-Bijker: "Our primary focus is on getting doctors and nurses to excel in their medical expertise. Anything beyond that is complementary and often a challenge to do alongside. However, to work together with researchers and developers, they do need basic knowledge of data science. This is exactly why we want to integrate more data-related courses in healthcare education. This way, even before their careers start, they will get an early fundamental understanding of the concepts of data science and AI, along with their possible implications.” UMCG’s recently established digital healthcare education team, which Wisselink-Bijker is part of, is currently developing three courses: 'Introduction to AI in Healthcare', 'Introduction to eHealth: Digital Innovations in Patient Care', and 'Bridging Statistics and Machine Learning in Medical Research'. Each course focuses on a specific area. “Initially, we are implementing these at the Junior Scientific Masterclass (JSM) for bachelor students, with the aim of expanding them to other relevant healthcare programmes."

Rik Wisselink-Bijker

Solid foundation

Numerous initiatives are underway to meet the demands and requirements of data science education. These efforts include not only the creation of educational materials for students, but also the expansion and accessibility of resources for healthcare professionals already working in the field. Wisselink-Bijker: "For healthcare professionals already working at UMCG, we are developing an introductory course within our existing UMCG Learning Management System (LMS). This online course will be offered free of charge and is expected to take about only an hour. Although the exact release date is yet to be determined, our more comprehensive online course 'How Artificial Intelligence can Support Healthcare' is already available, which is also free and open to all. This course covers various critical aspects of AI in healthcare, including opportunities, legal considerations and ethical dilemmas, in several chapters spread over several weeks. We get very positive feedback on it. The course has now reached almost 3,000 participants."

Besides online courses, many live events and workshops are also organised. These include regular knowledge events and seasonal schools, such as summer and winter schools, in which professionals can participate. Wisselink-Bijker notes, "Our summer School on data science and AI in healthcare has been successful. In it, multidisciplinary teams work intensively together. Participants often have an affinity with the topic, but lack specific knowledge. Through this immersive experience, they lay a solid foundation in a short time." 

Exploring possibilities

Wisselink-Bijker sees the importance of this education and is happy to contribute to it. "People we educate now are going to see many changes in healthcare. We hope that the right, easily accessible and up-to-date educational material will enable them to perform their medical profession even better. It would already be great if they can at least properly assess what data science or AI can and cannot do, and also develop the ability to think critically and learn to recognise inaccuracies. And who knows, they might also get an affinity for the interesting data science field, in which case they can always turn to us for options to broaden their knowledge.”

Want to know more about possible support or courses in the field of data science and AI in healthcare? Feel free to contact [email protected].

Sector plan: Accelerating Healthcare

Since 2022, UMCG has received substantial funding through the national sector plan for Medical and Health Sciences. This funding is for strengthening the foundation of scientific research and education, with a focus on generating more appointments and establishing permanent positions. This allocation allows experts like Tanja and Rik to devote themselves to important and long-term projects. In collaboration with other UMCs and regional partners, the UMCG plays a crucial role in crucial areas such as prevention, data-driven innovation and the practical implementation of (basic) research.