UConn and Cigna Team Up for Health Care Research

By: Christine Buckley

The University of Connecticut this week announced a partnership with international health insurance company Cigna that will fund research into people’s health care decisions, train students in techniques to model health-related behaviors, and ultimately create jobs in Connecticut for UConn graduates and other skilled analysts.

Cigna has funded fellowships for five graduate students in the Departments of Statistics, Mathematics, and Psychology to conduct research with their UConn advisors on the decisions people make regarding their health care.

By modeling the factors involved in people’s health choices, Cigna and UConn aim to reduce the costs of health insurance by investing in people’s long-term health.

“This collaboration with Cigna is one example of the many business partnerships at UConn that give our students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workplace,” says UConn President Susan Herbst. “Through support of important social science research, Cigna and our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are helping people live healthier lives while creating jobs in Connecticut.”

Dipak Dey, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Statistics, is heading the Cigna Analytics Partnership. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Cigna and UConn students are both getting significant benefits from the collaboration, says Dipak Dey, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Statistics and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s great for Cigna because they’re getting trained people to do this research to help reduce the costs of healthcare,” says Dey. “And it’s great for our students because this is real on-the-job training, which will make our students highly competitive targets for recruitment. There is a short supply of experts in this area.”

The research is unique, Dey says, because it combines knowledge of mathematical modeling and technical savvy with an understanding of the social factors that predict people’s health behaviors. For example, although most people can pick up their prescriptions at a drugstore, some people, such as cancer or AIDS patients, must get theirs at a hospital. Does this social factor influence people’s receptiveness to taking their medications regularly, asks Dey?

Second-year statistics Ph.D. student Dooti Roy worked for a year in banking before she came to UConn for graduate work. She says that the opportunity to get hands-on industry experience while still doing her degree gives her a big leg up.

“When you do a Ph.D., you don’t always get a chance to learn about the business side of things before you graduate,” says Roy, whose research will focus on building predictive models to understand the optimal costs of prescription drugs. “When your work is based on theoretical data, it’s hard to get an idea of the issues facing real people.”

This collaboration with Cigna is one example of the many business partnerships at UConn that give our students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Cigna will provide data from its membership, free of identity information, to the students funded by Cigna research assistantships. Dey says that this summer, each will spend several days per week at the company’s headquarters in Bloomfield, working with in-house Cigna analysts.

At a kickoff dinner on Feb. 19, administrators and employees from Cigna gathered at the UConn Foundation with Provost Mun Choi, Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum, and faculty, students, and alumni to initiate the program.

“We’re applying academic rigor to real-world problems, and we’re excited to have the caliber of these students working with us,” said Mark Boxer, global chief information officer for Cigna and a member of the University of Connecticut Foundation Board of Trustees, at the event. “With the launch of this center, we’ve created a new model of academic and corporate innovation.”

Dey sees potential for this program to extend to other parts of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, such as economics and sociology, and other schools, such as pharmacy and social work.

“Students and faculty from many departments of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and across the University can benefit from this partnership,” he says.

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