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The most revolutionary sector this century: Health Data Science at UNSW Medicine

It’s science, but there’s a lot of art in this.” – Professor Sallie-Anne Pearson

How do you earn the title of having the “sexiest job of the 21st century”? Become a data scientist of course.

Our digital universe is rapidly expanding, and as technology evolves, so does the health data industry. Health data scientists collect, collate, and make sense of information, before putting it to good use by bettering healthcare across the world.

“Within healthcare there are a lot of nuances to the data, and healthcare can be complex,” said Peter Cronin, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Prospection, a Sydney-based health insights company.

Data scientists are at the forefront of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI). They make sense of the endless amounts of data that exists online. The global volume of online information is estimated to be growing at a rate of more than 50 percent per year. The world needs data scientists to keep up and make sense of the chaos. And, with a median base salary of A$130,000 (US$98,500), this is an enticing offer.

Big data in health doesn’t just involve admission records, test results and other information collated by healthcare institutions; it also encompasses things like your daily steps which are calculated by a Fitbit or iPhone. This gives health data scientists a better insight into how, when, and why we become ill.

“Integration of this data with traditional data is a big challenge, but an extraordinary opportunity,” said Professor Louisa Jorm. “We’re also increasingly exploring ‘found’ data. Are there ways we could potentially use internet-derived data such as tweets or Facebook posts?”

Using more traditional forms of data combined with modern systems allows a greater understanding of the world of healthcare and medicine. Millennials are much more liberal when it comes to data sharing than the generations before them, but much of the training for health data scientists remains stuck in 20th century methods.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) breaks out of this cycle, preparing their Master of Science (MSc) in Health Data Science students to face the modern world. The program is Australasia’s first postgraduate program in data science.  Based in UNSW Medicine, one of the world’s top 50 medical faculties, health data scientists here are making waves within the healthcare world.


“Medical schools have lagged behind. There’s minimal training in statistics and no training in computer science,” claimed Jorm, CBDRH’s Foundation Director.

Health data scientists at UNSW are moving the sector forward. Recently, the university opened their world-leading Centre for Big Data Research in Health (CBDRH). The centre is revolutionary; bringing together over 60 research staff and students to tackle head-on the critical health issues that affect people both locally and all over the world.

And the centre is growing day-by-day. CBDRH is totally unique in purpose as it merges big data analysis with the healthcare sector. Researchers at CBDRH use electronic data on a large-scale, spanning the biomedical, clinical, health services and public health domains to make real change in the lives of real people.

“I don’t know of another [research centre] anywhere in the world that has that focus,” Jorm said. “We are the go-to place for big data health research in Australia, and increasingly in Asia.”

The Centre homes experts in many different fields including public health, clinical care, epidemiology and economics, as well as biostatisticians, computer scientists, and data managers. Together, those at the centre can study huge quantities of information in order to understand what makes us susceptible to illness, and whose bodies are at the highest risk.

Already, the discoveries they have made are improving treatments, reshaping healthcare and changing health policies for a multitude of diseases.

Professor Louisa Jorm

“The challenge for us is going to be coping with the demand [of new research requests],” said Jorm. “What started as a trickle is now almost a flood.”

Here, students transform data into action which changes the world for the better. They work towards understanding human fertility, cancer, child development, heart disease and use of medicines, among many other facets of healthcare.

“Being a good data scientist in this sector means first being able to understand what is the question that someone wants to ask. Then you need to understand the data you’re working with, including the limitations of that data,” Cronin said.

“Thirdly, you have to be able to develop algorithms. And the fourth component is knowing how to communicate or visualise the answer to be able to present it to the client.”

Associate Professor Georgina Chambers of the National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit within the CBDRH said that as big data in health expands, increasing numbers of data scientists are needed to keep up.

“I’m excited by it, but what I sense is that, like a lot of medical science, the science is going to move a lot faster than individuals’ and society’s ability to digest it,” she said.

The CBDRH offers research training opportunities at all levels. Students are able to immerse themselves in a dynamic community of researchers and educators that lies at the heart of the centre. Faculty take their world-leading expertise in managing, manipulating, analysing and visualising health big data to help expand the minds of eager students.

Graduates will leave ready to work in a multitude of positions within the public and private healthcare sector. Due to the size of the sector (for example, the USA spends 18% of its GDP on healthcare) and its cross-disciplinary nature, the opportunities for health data scientists are rife.

“What I love about this field is it’s so diverse,” said Pearson. “I’m a behavioural scientist – I’m not a doctor, I’m not a pharmacist. But I’ve been able to establish a research career. Data science welcomes everyone.”

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