As a high school student, Tea Reljic, MPH, knew she wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. “Initially [I] had my heart set on clinical medicine,” she says.
As a pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin, Reljic took advantage of both undergraduate research opportunities and volunteer opportunities in various healthcare organizations and settings. Through these experiences, she “quickly learned that while I loved learning about medicine, I was far less interested in providing direct care to patients.”
“After a summer interning with UNICEF in their Early Childhood Development Program, I concluded that a career in public health research was a perfect fit,” she says.
This new research focus led Reljic to USF Health’s Morsani College of Medicine. “I came to USF for graduate school because of an opportunity to work full time in a research setting while pursuing my degree,” she explains.
Reljic now works as both a researcher and an instructor in the online Master of Science in Health Informatics program with USF Health.
Researcher at Work
As a Statistical Data Analyst with the Morsani College of Medicine’s Office of Research, working in the Research Methods and Biostatistics Core, Reljic collaborates with USF faculty and clinicians in the design of clinical studies.
“They often have in mind a broad clinical question that they would like to address, and I work with them to formulate it into a testable hypothesis,” she explains. “We then collaboratively put together the proposal including the appropriate study design [with] eligibility criteria, study timeline, outcomes of interest, and statistical analyses.”
If the study proposal receives approval, Reljic then works with “a team of analysts and programmers to develop a study database, extract any available historic data from existing EMRs and databases, and clean and cross validate the data. It is a very collaborative environment.”
Once the study is complete, it’s time to compile the results. “I perform all of the prespecified analyses and generate the tables and figures for dissemination of the results,” she explains. “We continue to work closely with the research team through the end when the studies are published.”
This can include submitting the research study to various medical journals and clinical conferences where the findings are presented to other clinicians.
Bridging Technical Informatics and Clinical Research
Reljic’s role as an analyst and researcher in the Morsani College of Medicine directly informs how she teaches the Health Outcomes Research course within the Master’s in Health Informatics program.
“I aim to enable students to recognize the structure of common research questions and be able to match those questions to appropriate study designs, recognize common sources of bias, and select appropriate analysis methods based on the available data,” Reljic says of her approach to the course.
The Health Outcomes Research course bridges the more technical informatics and data analytics of the program with their real-life applications in clinical research. Reljic is an example to her students of how an informatics professional can quite literally be that bridge.
In seeing her Statistical Data Analyst role as acting as a “translator” between health clinicians and health informatics, Reljic emphasizes to her students that “it is important to be able to understand the clinical questions that need to be answered and how those questions can be addressed with the resources at hand.
“In theory, it is easy to design perfect studies that provide us with perfect data to make a decision, but in practice, we have to work within the confines of limited resources, available data, ethical dilemmas, and overall study feasibility.”
That means comprehending “both the clinical aspect (i.e., the clinical question that the client needs answered) and the statistical/data analysis aspect of what data is available and how it can be manipulated to best address the research question.”
Teaching Research Design in a Real-World Setting
The professional research experience Reljic brings, along with assignments covering a variety of topics and current events in clinical medicine, help the course to resonate with her students.
By looking at practical examples of both well-designed and poorly designed studies, students experience “research design in the real-world setting.” In analyzing the studies, Reljic says she phrases questions to the students in a way that requires them to find evidence as to why a study is done correctly or incorrectly.
“I want them to take skepticism with them,” she says, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and analysis. “I try to create as much of a safe environment as possible for the students…to realize when you don’t know something.”
While the coursework is primarily “individual work” for the students, ungraded discussion boards around current published research and topics in the field foster student engagement and collaboration.
“I engage with the students through ample feedback on assignments,” says Reljic. “I do my best to build a good rapport with the students through individual responses on assignments and e-mails.”
This individualized feedback is important to the student experience, as with the online nature of the course, “the students and I are all in the course environment at different times, depending on individual schedules,” she explains. “The ability to complete 100% of the work online and the flexibility of the courses is important to many working professionals…”
The program “attracts students from varying backgrounds and levels of experience with clinical research,” says Reljic, and many are “coming back to school after a few years in a health or IT field.”
That USF Health’s online Master’s in Health Informatics program is positioned to these working professionals makes it unique, as does the program’s place within the highly ranked Morsani College of Medicine.
“Many of the faculty actively work [and] perform research at the College,” explains Reljic. “This is important since it gives students the opportunity to work with a number of healthcare stakeholders, in addition to informatics professionals.”