Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Nicholas Soulakis – Translating Health Knowledge to Practice

As part of the “One Book Northwestern Series”, Dr. Nicholas Soulakis will be leading a book discussion on “Public Health, Terrorism and Medicine” on the January 12, 2017 at the Northwestern University library in Evanston from 5:00 – 6:00 PM.

Dr. Nicholas Soulakis is a public health scientist whose research focus lies at the intersection of epidemiology and informatics with an emphasis on understanding the data-rich environment created by health information technology and leveraging these techniques to monitor and ultimately improve population health outcomes.
Ahead of his “One book Northwestern lecture” we recently chatted with Dr. Nicholas about his journey to Northwestern, Public health interest and ongoing projects below.

Could you tell me a little about your background – what route brought you here and how you got interested in the subjects you are studying now?

It is a path that may only make sense to me. I started at the University of Pittsburgh, studying Theology and the History and Philosophy of Science as an undergraduate. Towards my senior year, I became fascinated with the question of how religious practice intersects with health. In some religions, the more you practice, the healthier you become (e.g. vegetarianism, yoga). In other religions, the opposite is true (e.g. vaccinations, snake handling). This led me to the Great Plagues of Europe, where religious dynamics, like scapegoating, played a major role. I started to understand the overlap of minority religious groups and hygiene, living conditions and how public health played a role. Eventually, my advisor suggested I walk across the street to the Graduate School of Public Health. My first contact was with Dr. Russell Rycheck. We talked for hours about the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the CDC, Hot Zone, Ebola, AIDS, smallpox. I still have the copy of the National Geographic “Disease Detectives” he handed me that day.

Could also tell us little about the projects you are working on right now?
These days, my work focuses on healthcare as public health. Specifically, how primary care is transitioning to the front lines of population health. The way incentives and regulation have changed, we need to develop better tools and infrastructure for primary care physicians. I do many things, but the central theme is that we need to translate our best work in epidemiology, informatics, data science to the independent practitioners in the community. One of these projects introduces the idea of better analytics for care coordination. As patients age and accumulate more comorbidities, delivering care involves more and more providers. If you imagine family practitioners as the ‘quarterback’ or team captain, we use advanced network analytics to simplify the complexity of their playbook. I also work with our excellent heart failure group at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. For patients recovering from acute cardiovascular disease, discharge planning is the beginning of a long, and hopefully healthy, road. To do it right requires a lot of moving parts to synchronize. Our work tries to crystalize the value in each part as the patient moves from hospital to home and back to the care of their primary care physician.

What future projects do you have planned or what big questions would you like to work on?
The great thing about public health informatics is that they are all big questions, since so many lives could be potentially affected. This notion of ‘data science for everybody,’ how do we grow analytical capacity for community providers is something I will continue to work on for years to come. Classic epidemiology collects, processes, analyzes, and reports data to deliver information for action. In well-defined scenarios, like a measles outbreak, this can be simplified to very specific data and analyses. In today’s healthcare environment we must disentangle things like complexity of patients, patient-provider communications, payment reform to understand what information providers need. I see the need for communities of providers to share what analyses and reports are most valuable for them, whether it is population management like reports for managing their diabetic population or practice management like understanding how to track their progress against the tangle of incentives programs they participate in. Underpinning all of this is the notion that ‘data science’ will benefit from a ground-up approach as opposed to top-down edicts. In my lab, we believe primary care physicians are some of the smartest and nimblest healthcare analysts. We need to channel, or crowdsource, what is working in practice to grow the capacity to meet our coming healthcare challenges.

In the most practical sense- how does the work you do affect quality of life or our understanding of health care.
I see the ultimate expression of my work as growing the number of vigorous primary care practices in the community, using better analytics to make critical decisions which affect their patient populations and the community around them. As patients, we appreciate strong, lasting relationships with our healthcare providers. As seniors, continuity of care with a team of local providers who understand the intricacies of your aging lessens the anxiety of healthcare encounters. I do not believe analytics are a panacea, but I do believe if we can help providers cut through the noise of so much data, we can create efficiencies and value that directly affect their patients.

Finally do you have a  great book recommendation for us? What should everyone read at least once?
That’s a tough question, I am all over the place with what I read. I read “Running with the Buffaloes” and “Daniels’ Running Formula” every couple years. I have always been a huge science fiction and fantasy reader – Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, J.R.R Tolkein, Ray Bradbury. I also have collected, and subsequently given away, thousands of comic books. I always read the usual suspects like X-Men, Defenders, Spiderman, which are all movies these days. But I also love visiting the local comic book shop on random Wednesdays (delivery day) and picking up the small and strange titles that appeal to me for whatever reason. A great place to start is the Vertigo label. They reimagined all of the childhood classics into a series called Fables which is excellent.

A great book that converges many of these ideas of epidemiology, dynamics of plagues, fantasy is “Blindness” by Jose Saramago. It’s not light reading, but it transports you way past outbreaks as numbers, into a visceral experience of how surreal life becomes when everyone around you is just trying to survive.

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About NPHR Blog (184 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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