Aspiring rural health expert and HSPM doctoral candidate Matthew Yuen wins S.C. IMPH Outstanding Student Abstract Award at SCPHA

March 28, 2016

Julius Fridriksson

Matthew Yuen

Originally from California, Matthew Yuen first grew to like the field of rural health through his work with rural populations during his Master of Public Health in Health Policy and Management program at Texas A&M University. “I came to love working in rural areas through getting to know the people—and also eating their great food—in rural Texas,” says the doctoral candidate in the Arnold School’s Department of Health Services Policy and Management (HSPM).

Yuen came to the University of South Carolina to earn a Ph.D. in Health Services Policy and Management so he could work with mentors Janice Probst (HSPM Professor) and Kevin Bennett (Associate Professor in the School of Medicine and HSPM Alumnus). “Dr. Probst and Dr. Bennett are both well-known researchers in the field of rural health research,” he says. “When they gave me an opportunity to work at the South Carolina Rural Health Research Center with the promise of getting hands-on experience, it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.”

His past professional experience also helped steer him toward Carolina and the Arnold School. Working in health administrative positions made Yuen realize that while health administration is a critical part of the delivery of health, he really liked the broader impact of influencing policy. “A single hospital or a single program can help change the health outcomes of several hundred people or even thousands, but one fell swoop of a pen can affect millions,” he explains. “Who wouldn’t want to affect millions?”

To achieve this type of impact, Yuen stresses the importance of the solid foundation that his doctoral program provides. “For policy to be created, you need proof through statistical information, and HSPM teaches you to understand and analyze analytics,” he says. “And just as important, HSPM also teaches you to apply your analytical and statistical skills to policy and program-level functions.”

With just a little over a year left in his doctoral program, Yuen has certainly benefited from the mentorship and educational opportunities that come with his department and USC. The most recent evidence of his success comes in the form of the S.C. Institute for Medicine and Public Health’s Outstanding Student Abstract Award, which Yuen received at the S.C. Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in February.

His win marks the second year in a row for HSPM (following Naveed Sadiq’s 2015 win), and the fifth year in a row of wins for the Arnold School. “I am very grateful to IMPH for this award,” he says. “I feel incredibly blessed to receive it, and to be where I am in life right now.”

To win the award, he received the highest score for his abstract, Who Said What: Complaints Leading to Opioid Prescriptions in the ED. With nearly 39 percent of all opioid prescriptions taking place at emergency departments (ED), Yuen’s research looked at a three-year, nationally representative sample of emergency department visits for adult patients. His analysis revealed insights regarding patient populations who were more likely to receive opioid prescriptions during these visits: individuals who are a) 36-50 years of age with b) private insurance at c) urban locations with d) complaints of injury, abdominal pain, or back pain.

“Opioid prescriptions are being given at record highs across all social demographic classes in America, which has led to record opioid abuse numbers, so it’s important that we learn more about this phenomenon” says Yuen. “We discovered various commonalities among patients who receive these prescriptions and found that the type of person who is most likely to receive an opioid prescription complains of back or abdominal pain.”

Though Yuen shares his success with influential professors from his previous universities and his HSPM classmates who have supported him along the way, he saves his highest praise for Probst. “Dr. Probst's training and guidance helped me greatly throughout the process,” he says. “Despite my multiple foul-ups along the way, she showed the patience and gave me the wisdom to help guide me through the process. I definitely would not have been able to receive the award without her help.”

He also appreciates the role his parents, Ting and Wendy Yuen, have played in his career development. “My parents have helped lead me and guide me through my lowest lows and continually give me advice,” he says. “Throughout my life, I’ve done enough to give them a few more wrinkles and taken decades off their lifespan. Without their wisdom and help, I wouldn’t be here today.”

With the end of his doctoral program in sight, Yuen plans for a career in rural health and is ready to dispense advice to those who will follow him. “Take every career opportunity that life offers,” he says. “As a student, there is no such thing as a bad opportunity. Every opportunity that you miss is an opportunity you have lost for personal and professional growth.”

Yuen also highly recommends his HSPM program in particular and public health in general. “Do it,” he says simply. Public health has long shown itself to make large positive impacts in healthcare at a low cost. It is for this reason that public health is a growing industry and is needed more than ever before.”

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