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Healthcare Ethics: UIC Clinical Associate Professor diverse journey from Buddhist monastery to scholar

UIC Clinical Associate Professor Eric Scott Swirsky smiles at camera in glasses and suit coat

Introducing Eric Scott Swirsky, a Clinical Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies and PhD Program Coordinator in Biomedical and Health Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). Swirsky’s educational journey spans diverse field and ranges from comparative religion to law, which highlights his rich background. These experiences, including living in Buddhist monasteries and a decade-long career in law, each contribute to his unique perspective on healthcare.

Currently teaching UIC’s online Master of Science in Health Informatics program BHIS 505: Ethics & Legal Issues in Health Informatics course, Swirsky is dedicated to addressing disparities in healthcare and challenging traditional curricula to include perspectives that are often overlooked. As an educator, he encourages students to question power dynamics and advocate for patient rights.

Recognizing the need to bridge his legal expertise with healthcare ethics, Swirsky pursued a post-doctoral fellowship in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago’s medical school and received a Master of Health Professions Education (MHPE) from UIC. He is currently involved in groundbreaking research with the Chicagoland COVID-19 Commons, exploring data narratives to address societal disparities. This project reflects his dedication to leveraging data to inform future responses and improve healthcare outcomes.

Learn more about Swirsky’s background and how it demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary expertise and lifelong learning.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My educational journey has been quite diverse. I received my undergraduate degree in comparative religion, and my graduate degree in South Asian studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During this time, I lived in Buddhist monasteries. I lived in India and Palestine, where I continued my studies in comparative religion focusing on conflict. I then transitioned from the study of religion to pursuing a law degree. I practiced law for 10 years. Although I am now in retired status, I maintain inactive licensure in Illinois, D.C., and Maryland.

Joining UIC in 2007, I recognized the need to continue my education in clinical medical ethics to complement my legal background. This led me to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago’s medical school. I recently received an MHPE from UIC. Additionally, I contribute to healthcare education through my role on the board of directors for the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs.

How did you become interested in healthcare? What keeps you excited about the field?

During my legal career, I focused on transactional law in venture capital while negotiating large deals. A key aspect of these negotiations involved using conflict resolution skills and aligning diverse values, needs, and perspectives, which most people aren’t trained in. We make decisions every day, but understanding how these decisions create disparities is important. This oversight is particularly evident in healthcare. Ethics is often a side note. Even in medical schools, ethics training can be fragmented and limited to knowledge needed for Board examinations. My background in humanities offers valuable insights often overlooked in traditional curricula.

In my BHIS 505: Ethics & Legal Issues in Health Informatics course, I teach students that they should always be questioning people who are in power even if it’s uncomfortable, starting with themselves as they explore their own values and biases. I feel like that’s the basis behind education, to always be questioning things, what we know, and how we know it. That is the benefit of a liberal arts education. I’m dedicated to addressing these gaps and challenging power dynamics to serve patients and students better.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing their online Master of Science in Health Informatics degree at UIC?

Learners need to focus on developing knowledge and skills that align with their professional aspirations. Graduate level education is competency based, so much of the direction is student-driven which is evident in choices such as selecting a capstone project.

In the health informatics curriculum, learners are tasked with selecting a capstone project that directly applies to their professional endeavors. For instance, they might opt to delve into topics like quality improvement initiatives within their workplace or address specific challenges they encounter in their roles. This will help them engage with their supervisors where they can present tangible contributions that enhance their professional standing and advance their career progression. It is essential for learners to lead this process and recognize that there are diverse paths within their program.

What is the most important thing you have learned about having a successful career that you would like to pass on to students?

My background may or may not be useful for our learners, but nevertheless, I have undergone some significant changes. As the Director of Graduate Studies, reflecting back to when I was an 18-year-old in India, this trajectory does not make sense. However, there has been a longstanding conversation on integrating humanities-trained individuals into the sciences and I figured out a way to do that—my background allows me to engage metacognitive processes to deliberately choose what to think about and then assess how I am thinking about and analyzing things.

Translating this insight for learners, I have realized it’s important to remain open to change. Despite our efforts to plan our educational journey, it’s important to acknowledge that our paths may deviate. Even though I’ve deliberately informed my education in certain ways, it hasn’t led me to where I thought I would be. However, I’m flourishing as an educator and a scholar. I get to profess values for a living.

Can you tell us about the most exciting project you are working on?

I work with the pandemic response Chicagoland COVID-19 Commons and we’re looking at data that shows a narrative, particularly societal disparities. The co-investigator that I’m working with is Dr. Andy Boyd. We’re supplying large amounts of data along with other consortium members from nearby universities. It’s been great working with a group of data scientists because there are many factors at play. There are lessons that that we may be able to garner from this rich data source that can help us in the future. We don’t believe this will be the last time something like this happens. It’s been challenging, but also very exciting.

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