When UMSN Assistant Professor Matthew Davis, Ph.D., MPH, decided he wanted
to make an impact beyond his patient base, he knew he’d have to get creative.
“When I started off as a researcher, I had no money and no resources, so I looked for ways to do meaningful work using pre-existing information,” explains Davis.
Davis’ decision couldn’t have come at a better time, as the amount of such information
has grown exponentially in recent years. Thanks to the adoption of electronic
health records, smartphones, fitness trackers and to the general digitization of records everywhere, researchers now have access to massive amounts of data they did not have before. This has produced
a significant shift in research. In the past, researchers almost always had to collect novel information, but now many are leveraging the data that already exist.
“My research is evolving alongside available information,” says Davis. “For instance, we started using administrative records to study health care phenomena, and now we’ve moved on to leverage social media data to explore health behaviors and public opinion.”
Davis’ approach has paid off. The National Institutes of Health has funded his work for the last seven years. Now Davis uses large data sets, such as administrative records (health care billing data), clinical data and national health survey data, to answer health policy questions. Davis is quick to note
that none of these sources are perfect, but looking at them collectively has helped
to create new ways of conducting large-
scale research. In particular, administrative health care data have been used extensively to inform U.S. health care redesign.
“These data were intended to follow money through the health care system,” he says.
“However, they can also be used to track health care providers, patient diagnoses and treatments. From these elements we can do an enormous amount.”
One current area of Davis’ research focuses on one of the most common ailments in
the U.S. Back pain costs the American health care system approximately 80 billion dollars each year. Davis is studying what happens when patients look outside the medical system for back treatment. He’s investigating whether chiropractors (who traditionally practice outside of the medical system) can substitute for conventional medical care in meaningful ways.
“Our work is designed to provide health policymakers with the information
they need to make the most informed decisions possible to improve the health care system and better meet the needs of patients and their families,” he says.
While Davis does not have a background in nursing, he sees great importance
in encouraging nursing students to pursue health services research.
“Nurses have a perspective on health care that is of incredible value,” says Davis. “I don’t know if anybody has as good a handle on the health care delivery system as nurses. I think the more nurses we can get involved in health services and policy research, the better.”