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Transforming Canadian Health Care

Health Care Meets Big Data at the University of Calgary

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Dave Anderson_University of Calgary

Dave Anderson

Director, Precision Health Program, Cumming School of Medicine

Jo-Louise Huq_University of Calgary

Jo-Louise Huq

Specialization Lead for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Cumming School of Medicine

Precision health is a major disruptor in health care. A new graduate program at the University of Calgary brings professionals up to speed.


It’s hard to think of a sector untouched by the virtual omnipresence of big data, and health care is no different. From genome sequencing to environmental data, the vast quantity of health-related information available to researchers and physicians continues to increase. A paradigm shift is in the works as health-care experts ask a crucial question: how can we maximize the impact of big data to improve health-care outcomes for individuals, communities, and society at large?

The result is an emerging disruptor known as precision health: in short, the application of the big data era to health and wellness. At the University of Calgary, a new graduate program upskills practicing health-care professionals to take advantage of the exciting new developments in this field.

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Multiple specializations for every application of precision health

“If we’re going to see precision health realized in our system, it’s going to require different kinds of people working at different levels,” says Dave Anderson, Senior Instructor at the University of Calgary’s Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. “A program that only focuses on the technologies of precision health, like genome sequencing and machine learning, would ultimately yield an impoverished view. Technology is a key component, but there’s a huge amount to be done that doesn’t require you to be an expert at that level.”

If we’re going to see precision health realized in our system, it’s going to require different kinds of people working at different levels.

Accordingly, the Precision Health program at the University of Calgary offers four streams of specialization to reflect the different ways people can contribute to precision health as it emerges in Canada. Precision Medicine is the most technologically focused stream, covering subjects like pharmacogenomics and artificial intelligence applications in precision health. Another stream, called Quality and Safety Leadership, takes a broader look at the field, focusing on achieving optimal outcomes for patient populations.

A third stream, Health Professions Education Leadership, is designed to train educators in the curricular implementation of precision health. And the fourth stream, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, teaches leaders to think entrepreneurially to develop innovative precision health solutions.

Entrepreneurial thinking key to implementing precision health

“The Innovation and Entrepreneurship stream is about training health-care leaders to identify opportunities and design, analyze, implement, and evaluate precision health projects,” says Jo-Louise Huq, Specialization Lead for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “It’s relevant to both health-care professionals, whether administrators or clinicians and people outside the traditional health-care system, like engineers and computer scientists. It’s a multidisciplinary stream for anyone interested in advancing novel solutions in health care.”

Students in this stream cover the foundations of precision health before moving into areas like managing technology development, health system leadership, and managing complex precision health projects. Like all specialization streams in the program, students can ladder from a certificate in year one to a diploma in year two to a master’s degree in precision health in their third year — all delivered part-time. Career options for graduates run the gamut from business and non-profit leadership to innovation analysis or advanced leadership positions within traditional health care or clinical environments.

Accessible training opportunities for practicing professionals

The precision health program is carefully designed to be maximally accessible to practicing health-care professionals. To that end, the program is delivered part-time, making it possible for people who work full-time to obtain a certificate, diploma, or master’s degree without giving up their current role. “Our program is designed for people who already have an undergraduate degree and want to continue their professional development,” says Huq. “We do have more intensive one-week courses, which we call block courses, that are offered in a hybrid manner, but most classes take place virtually and in the evenings to accommo-date working professionals.”

Program leaders invested heavily in educational design expertise to ensure high-quality virtual instruction that eliminates geographic barriers. “Our priority was making sure the program is accessible to people in clinical careers, like MDs, pharmacists, and nutritionists, but is by no means limited to people working in those areas. We’ve also had many students with business backgrounds,” says An-derson.

Precision health without equity is a non-starter

Equity is a fundamental focus for all specializations within the precision health program. “On one hand, implemented appropriately, there’s a possibility that precision health could help ameliorate the poor health outcomes faced by groups that historically and continue to face inequity in the health-care system,” says Anderson.

“But there’s also the possibility that it could make it worse,” he continues. “For instance, genomic data that leads to precision health initiatives have historically focused on people of white, European ancestry. That means the insights, target-ed interventions, and customization options that emerge to optimize care are going to be most beneficial to the groups most studied. Precision health practi-tioners have a real responsibility to keep this in the forefront of everything they do.”

To help keep equity front and centre of the precision health program, the Uni-versity involved patient advocate groups, including the Imagine Citizens Network, in the design of the program. Modelling the concept of “co-production of care” integral to medicine, the program makes a point of integrating patient perspec-tives. “This isn’t easy, and to be upfront, we’re not where we want to be yet,” says Anderson. “But we’re doing our best to figure it out and to share what we learn with other medical training programs.”

Inclusivity is another major focus of the program. Financial awards, amounting to the full cost of tuition, are distributed on the basis of financial need and status within a given equity-deserving group for 10 per cent of students entering the program.

For Anderson, one of the most rewarding parts of leadership within the precision health program has been watching students make the material their own. “It’s been incredibly fun to see all the ways students in the program are taking preci-sion health,” he says. “There are so many ways to deploy this knowledge to re-flect your passions in the world. It’s an exciting and dynamic community.”

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