An MPP from Harris launched O’Hanlon on the path to a PhD and a career in medical research.
Claire O'Hanlon, Headshot
Claire O'Hanlon

“If someone has advanced cancer, some may want to explore every treatment available, while others may decline those options because they want to spend more time with their family,” says Claire O’Hanlon, MPP’13, an Advanced Fellow in Health Services Research for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. “Defining the best quality of care is difficult in those cases, so I’m working on a project using electronic medical records to determine whether end-of-life conversations are actually happening between doctors and their patients.”

O’Hanlon first began her medical research into end-of-life issues in 2012 as a Master of Public Policy (MPP) student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She credits her experience at the University of Chicago with launching her on the path to a PhD and into a career in healthcare research.

“A lot of the research methods I currently use were first introduced to me at Harris: I had been undecided on what policy path to pursue when I first arrived. But I got a research position at UChicago Medicine, which was important, because I knew I wanted to keep doing research and get a PhD.”

O’Hanlon’s interest in public policy was sparked while earning an engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College, where she discovered she was more interested in solving social problems than physical ones. After graduation, she worked as a lab tech and applied to several PhD programs but wasn’t admitted. Deciding that she needed to bolster her statistical, data analysis, and research skills, she enrolled in Harris’ MPP program, hoping it would put her on the path to a PhD.

At the University of Chicago, she joined the Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy (GPHAP), an interdisciplinary program that leverages classes in policy, law, business, and social services, allowing Harris MPP students to earn a Certificate in Health Administration and Policy. It was through GPHAP that O’Hanlon landed a research opportunity at UChicago Medicine.

“The research I did there was predicting life expectancy and trying to reduce care. When you only have a few years to live, you don’t care about preventing long term complications of something (like diabetes). If you’re likely to die of something else, it makes sense to think, ‘Do we really need to treat this?’ because treatments often have side effects that are harmful to patients.”

In her MPP classes, such as Mixed Methods Approaches to Policy Research, O’Hanlon said she learned the value of integrating quantitative and qualitative research—frameworks she still uses today.

“That class showed me when you do a data set analysis, you’re still left with the question of, ‘Why is this happening?’ I learned how important it is to know what to ask before you conduct a survey, because you might be asking the wrong questions.”

Midway through her MPP program, O’Hanlon applied to PhD programs again—and was admitted to several. She chose Pardee RAND Graduate School, where she earned her PhD in policy analysis in 2018, serving as an adjunct policy researcher and writing her dissertation on the impacts of U.S. health care industry consolidation.

“Harris helped me cross the bridge to my doctoral degree. The PhD programs looked favorably on the quantitative preparation and theoretical background the MPP program gave me: Harris puts a lot of stock in students understanding the theory behind what they’re doing. And I took many PhD-level classes while at Harris, which made my later PhD coursework much easier.”

Research conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs frequently influences how healthcare is provided for many patients, not just veterans. O’Hanlon hopes her work will help shape how physicians communicate with their patients about end-of-life care options.

“For years, doctors weren’t reimbursed for end-of-life conversations—so those conversations didn’t happen. Our health system is set up to make us do more and more when that is not always the best thing for patents, their family, or society. With my research, this is what I get to think about on a daily basis.”