As someone who started in medical sales and now works in data analysis, HSM alum Nicholas Smith encourages graduates to keep an open mind

From an early age, Nicholas Smith knew he would work in the health care industry. Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, where the world-class Mayo Clinic is “in your face,” he says he was drawn to it. In high school he took health sciences courses, including a nursing course, through which he earned a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. 

“Yeah, it was super cool. I got my CNA license and I learned a ton there,” Smith says. “Once I went to college I thought, ‘I want to be pre-med. I want to try and become a doctor. I think it would be cool to go back and try to work at the Mayo Clinic,’ and I just had this entire vision in my head.”

Then came the rude awakening of college chemistry. After his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, when he realized he wasn’t cut out for a rigorous education in medicine, Smith says he felt lost and unsure of his next move. That all changed when he discovered the Health Services Management (HSM) program.

“The degree caught my eye because it was like a business degree but within the scope of health care,” says Smith. “It seemed like a perfect fit.” While earning his degree, Smith explored various facets of the industry—from administration to sales—and did an internship with Abbott Laboratories (read more about that in Ambition in Health Care). 

Keeping an Open Mind

Upon graduation, Smith accepted a job with Optum, part of the UnitedHealth Group. He started in their consulting development program and, through working on a couple projects, recognized that he had a knack for data analysis and reporting.

“I got put onto a project working on software development,” Smith says. “At first I was bummed, because I wasn’t necessarily using my degree, but it ended up being a great opportunity, a blessing in disguise in the long term. It really helped lead me to where I am now. I just didn’t recognize it at that moment.”

From there, Smith was recruited to work on a side project building out an internal reporting tool, or dashboard, mainly to understand how the pandemic was affecting the business. “I didn’t really know anything about data. Anything about how to make a dashboard or anything like that. But I figured I would just say ‘yes’.”

“I didn’t really know anything about data. Anything about how to make a dashboard or anything like that. But I figured I would just say ‘yes’.”

Because Smith’s background was neither in coding nor data, when he wasn’t working on the project he took free online courses and consulted “Dr. Google,” but mostly learned the data analysis software by trial and error. “I really learned a ton and got more familiar with doing data exploration. It forced me to get extremely knowledgeable on Tableau and learn a lot of different skills surrounding data analysis, data visualization, data management. And once we put out some of those reports, leadership also started to take note and say, ‘Hey, where’s the other reporting you guys are working on?’”

As he got more confident and skilled at using the software, and the team’s reports grew more robust and complex, he got increasingly excited. “I was realizing, ‘Hey, this is the most enjoyable part of my work. Maybe I want to try and make it more of a full-time gig.’ I started to look around to see if there were any opportunities and found my current position as a product strategy consultant.”

Landing a Role in Data

Nicholas Smith standing on the stairs inside his office building

In the new role, Smith and his team analyze the Medicare Advantage industry trends to improve benefit planning decisions within the organization to benefit their members. “We look at data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other sources to see what our competitors are doing, where they’re doing it, and how they’re performing against what we’re doing in those areas. That information helps inform another part of the team’s work, which is to generate insights and create general strategies to help improve the efficiency and outcomes of the teams making decisions on our benefits and product offerings.”

“Our work impacts millions of seniors across the country and intersects with every part of the health care industry,” says Smith. “The benefits of the plans improve every year, incorporating benefits that original Medicare doesn’t offer, like dental and vision, or other benefits that target social determinants of health.”

In addition to his full-time job, Smith has served on the HSM advisory board since he was a student in the program. He sits on the curriculum subcommittee, which does things like mapping the outcomes of each course to ensure that the program meets guidelines. And he is currently vice-chair of the alumni subcommittee, focusing on how to engage alumni and finding out what they and future alumni want in terms of experiences and development. 

Laying a Broad Foundation

Looking back, Smith says the HSM program laid the foundation for his current position. “The degree got my foot in the door with Optum, it kind of set me apart. A lot of the knowledge that I gained in the program helped me step into this role and have familiarity with nearly every part of the healthcare industry.” 

Smith says the HSM degree program also helped him pursue a lot of different ideas and careers. “With HSM, the major was really just wanting to teach you everything they could about health care management. It allows you to do what you want with it.”

Explore the degree on the Health Services Management website.