From Information to Action: Meeting Virginia’s Critical Workforce Needs During COVID-19

During the most recent Batten Expert Chat, a Batten professor and a graduate of the School’s MPP program shared how they’re using data science to help address the Commonwealth’s shortage in healthcare professionals.

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the nation, many hospitals are experiencing shortages not just of equipment, but also of healthcare professionals. This past Wednesday, as part of Batten’s weekly expert chat series, a Batten professor and a graduate of the School’s Master of Public Policy (MPP) program discussed how they’re helping to address that shortage in Virginia.

Professor Ben Castleman, who also holds an appointment with the Curry School of Education and Human Development, directs the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia. The lab focuses on data science and nudge theory, which focuses on how people make decisions in the context of complex choices and information. Through partnerships with a range of organizations, Nudge4 uses a combination of “nudges” and hard data to connect people with educational and economic opportunities.

Although this might sound difficult to grasp, some of the lab’s methodologies are actually familiar to many of us, Castleman said. In a recent project, for example, Nudge4 partnered with the Virginia Community College System to help increase graduation rates, using data science to identify at-risk students and then send them personalized nudges—prompts that recommend classes and campus resources—to keep those students on track academically. “These are the same methods Netflix uses to recommend shows and movies for you to watch,” Castleman explained. “We’re using those same data-science and machine-learning methods to give students very tailored information and maximize their predicted probability of graduation.” 

Nudge4 is also using those approaches to address the shortage of healthcare professionals in Virginia. Castleman recently collaborated with Brian Kim—an MPP graduate and a current student at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development—and research faculty member Kelli Bird to design a special tool for state officials. The online “dashboard” the trio created again takes advantage of the extensive data available through the Virginia Community College System: specifically, data on students who both graduated recently and possess the health credentials needed to treat COVID-19 patients, but are either unemployed or working in a different field. 

An interactive map, the dashboard offers a way to visualize both the level of need for healthcare professionals and the number of potentially available graduates with relevant skills in each locality.  Virginia policymakers can select the specialty they’re looking for from a menu on the right, which includes fields like nursing, respiratory therapy, and bereavement counseling. Once they have a better sense of the graduates who might be available, Castleman explained, officials can then reach out to the Virginia Community College System to connect with those graduates and offer “whatever combination of incentives and encouragement” the state might have available and might convince graduates to help. 

“The idea is to take a lot of dense, descriptive statistics and help policymakers put that information into action,” Kim said.

To assist other states that might be interested in using their approach, Castleman and Kim have also included links to their methodology as part of the dashboard, “in hopes that it is as replicable as possible,” said Castleman.

The pair has thought carefully about how they can use their particular skills to address the coronavirus crisis. “Ben and I come from an education background: education policy in particular and community colleges in particular,” Kim said. “We don't know enough to give context about which places are hardest hit from an epidemiologic perspective. But what we can do is take these data about community college graduates and ask, ‘How can we use that information in a way that's actually going to support efforts on the ground?’”

In addition to aiding policymakers, Nudgehas also been helping educators adjust to the sudden shift to remote learning, Castleman said. The lab has been sharing “cheat sheets” and offering training sessions for teachers and advisors, which encourage educators to employ nudge strategies such as setting concrete goals, making specific plans, and using reminders.

The success of both the dashboard and the education initiatives, Kim suggested, comes in part from the lab’s focus on collaboration. When one chat participant asked how others with data science expertise might help during the current crisis, Kim said he could relate to that question.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to help,” he said. “But I think the difference between people who actually are making a difference and the people who are just putting a lot of information out there is the extent to which they're consulting with and working with field experts.”

Castleman agreed. “I think we've put a lot of time into building strong relationships with agencies like the Virginia Community College System here in Virginia, but really all over the country,” he said. “We have an opportunity right now to bring data science skills to bear in helping our partners to address COVID crises, whether they're in education or the workforce.”

For more information about their work, contact Castleman (blc4q@virginia.edu) and Kim (bhk5fs@virginia.edu).

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