Data virtualization key to healthcare's next wave

Enables healthcare organizations to better address data growth, analytics and patient care
By Pamela Bartz
01:58 PM
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Fewer industries have reaped the benefits of today’s digital world more than healthcare. The digital revolution has streamlined access to data allowing for more accurate and comprehensive patient care across the care continuum.

While most healthcare organizations have gained value from the digital revolution, most can’t reach ultimate integration nirvana due to data silos and disparate systems. In addition, recent mergers and acquisitions of large conglomerate healthcare networks, have resulted in duplicate systems of record that rely on proprietary code. Exacerbating the situation, joining these systems comes with strict HIPAA regulations and hurdles, as well as exorbitant price tags.

Fortunately, there is a solution that allows data to integrate without having to physically move from its original location. It’s called data virtualization and it enables hospitals and health systems to create a more agile information architecture by integrating real time data access to existing electronic health record systems and patient portals without changing or moving the original source code.

Data virtualization in healthcare: Big Data, EHR and beyond
Business intelligence and analytics are playing a major role in the push to achieve unified data access and improve patient interactions. With better insight, healthcare institutions can provide more accurate one-on-one care, create a more complete picture of population health trends, and prime themselves for Accountable Care Organization (ACO) membership.

Noted research in a TEKsystems Healthcare Services Division 2014 Survey, indicates that healthcare professionals expect business intelligence systems to be used widely across their organizations, including Finance (76 percent), Operations (75 percent), Clinical Care (71 percent) and Compliance (53 percent). With healthcare information growing, and data-intensive trends becoming more popular, it’s no wonder data integration and single-source access has become crucial in achieving more comprehensive patient care.

In light of the massive quantities of digital data being created, shared and stored on a daily basis, the task of integrating data is not one to be taken lightly. According to CIO.com, the healthcare industry is experiencing explosive growth in data — from 500 petabytes in 2013 to 25,000 PBs by 2020. Furthermore, the number of ACOs has risen sharply from just a year ago.

This means there is a greater need to integrate data than ever before. In fact, as noted in the website ajmc.com, 46 percent of C-suite executives are using an integrated data solution to reduce silos, while the website premierinc.com highlights that 72.5 percent of healthcare organizations are integrating clinical and claims data to better manage population health.

The Value of Data Virtualization for Healthcare
While unprecedented data growth and adoption of business intelligence tools are two major catalysts underlying the search for improved data integration there are other benefits that can come from a more consolidated approach to data access, and data virtualization answers the call, allowing for:

  • Simplified Data Access. As healthcare organizations grow – organically and through mergers and acquisitions – data systems can become further siloed. Unified data access through data virtualization breaks down integration barriers, enabling ubiquitous access to critical patient information through a common interface.
  • Continued ROI of Existing Infrastructure. Data virtualization extends the life and ROI of existing legacy infrastructure resources because it enables real time patient data to be easily accessed regardless of the format or location. So even if it resides on the historically hard-to-access mainframe, it can be accessed to create cloud applications, mobile and Web-based services.
  • Support of EHR and Meaningful Use. With the HITECH Act of 2009 and meaningful use requirements, EHRs become a requirement to attest to Stage 1 of MU. This added burden of tying electronic data access and entry into myriad hospital systems including billing, point-of-care, pharmacy and even other healthcare provider networks, means integration of all data aspects has become paramount to next-level patient care.
  • New Payment and Reimbursement Models. The move from fee-based to performance-based reimbursement models, as well as Medicare reimbursements tied to patient satisfaction, highlights the importance of quality patient care. Data virtualization supports streamlined collection of accurate data and survey analytics, as well as real time information about patient readmissions and aftercare adherence, improving patient experience and care.
  • Data Storage and Cost Reduction. Faced with ever-growing budget constraints, healthcare entities must “do more with less,” including completing IT-intensive projects quickly and at the lowest possible cost. With an effective data integration solution, providers can actually reduce data storage and warehouse costs, and better cope with constrained IT resources.
  • Improved Care Quality. Empowering patients to proactively participate in their own care is the basis for improving health and patient satisfaction. Data access plays a key role. Data virtualization ensures real time access to patient records via portals, EHRs and mobile devices, supporting improved patient outcomes.
  • Compliance and Data Governance Support. Healthcare data breaches are on the rise. To remain HIPAA-compliant, and to protect patient information, healthcare organizations must implement measures to more effectively handle, and secure, massive amounts of digital data. Data virtualization can help by automating and streamlining many of the data entitlement measures required to achieve regulatory compliance.

The Benefits of Single-source Data Access
To deliver the systems and information to support this big data explosion, healthcare organizations must be able to access and integrate information from multiple sources. Investing in a data virtualization solution to easily integrate vital data and enable an internal eDaaS (Enterprise Data as a Service) platform for employee access is an important first step. It provides the single-source access point from which data can extend. (More on this topic later).

According to Gartner Research, data virtualization usage is expanding to improve the speed and flexibility of enterprises’ aggregation of known disparate data, and in anticipation of the future additions of unknown data sources, as well as for consolidating data access. Being able to easily access data is increasingly important as, according to published IDC7 research, spending on big data technologies and services grew by 30 percent in 2014, surpassing $14 billion, driving the need for “data-optimized platforms,” capable of leveraging high volumes of data and/or real time data streams.

Data warehouse vs. data virtualization
The enterprise “Data Mart” concept is not new, yet the advanced technologies that can make it successful are. Newly released data virtualization solutions take it further by enabling the data to be easily accessed by more end users with unprecedented speed and simplicity, making the creation of a true Enterprise Data as a Service Model concept a reality.

Real Time Access
While pulling data together in a data warehouse integrates data across disparate platforms, it brings several limitations. First, the unified data must conform to a predefined schema for all consumers of the data, requiring customization for each report. Second, data warehousing relies on scheduled ETL (extract, transform, load) processes, making real time analysis difficult. These and other limitations slow data interaction, to the frustration of IT and business users alike. However, the most significant difference is that data virtualization allows eDaaS to deliver vital information in real time.

Use Data as Needed
Data virtualization masks data’s source location, structure and format from the user. And, because some of the newest data virtualization solutions employ RESTful Web services (Representational State Transfer) the data is quickly and easily connected, more intuitive to view and analyze, and shared in user-friendly formats. In the end, modern data virtualization provides the passageway that makes unified data available to all end users and allows them to use data in a format they need, not how the data source dictates.

Easily Grant Entitlements
With data virtualization, not only is information more easily attainable, it is also more easily managed. Some of the newest solutions offer multi-level data entitlement features that enable an administrator to grant or deny access to data from a complete data source, down to opening just a specific field within a data file. In addition, with these new solutions data access management can be adjusted instantaneously, via any mobile device.

Reaping Long-term Benefits from Data Virtualization
Data virtualization gives healthcare enterprises the ability to take applications and extend them by including data from other sources. Leveraging data virtualization makes possible the integration of data from any location, be it a physician practice, pharmacy, lab, patient portal, hospital, insurance carrier or remote monitoring device.

In addition, data virtualization provides for greater data accountability and agility and provides the ability to foster further internal collaboration among physicians, clinicians, staff, and patients. On the back end, it benefits IT staff by making possible the creation of one centralized platform to control, monitor and respond to requests for data. This means real time, up-to-date, remote data access regardless of whether you have a data warehouse. And a more stable, consistent development environment makes it possible to maximize IT talent and resources, freeing them up to deal with more pressing IT matters within the healthcare organization.

Finally, having multiple ways to access the data and deploy the finished application means much more flexibility in the way future applications are developed and deployed, such as mHealth apps, patient portals and other highly in-demand applications. This, in turn, helps healthcare entities attract patients in these highly competitive times.

6 considerations when selecting a data virtualization solution
For organizations looking to invest in a data virtualization solution, it’s important to keep an eye out for several key capabilities that have only recently come to market in newer data virtualization packages:

  • IT and Stakeholder Ease of Use: A data virtualization platform should be simple and intuitive for both IT staff and data end users. Look for a solution that requires no coding to set up, deploy or use. One that employs features such as drag-and drop data mapping and mobile access is ideal.
  • Legacy and Open Systems Connectivity: Look for a solution that not only connects a variety of modern data sources and locations, including relational, NoSQL, on-premises and cloud, but insist on one that also integrates all legacy data to hold-off expensive migrations.
  • Read/Write Data Interaction: Look for a data virtualization solution with bi-directional interaction. If you are only able to access information and not subsequently send back updates to the source(s), you are only getting half of the benefit of a true data virtualization platform. Many of the data virtualization solutions today only allow access to data.
  • Multi-level Enablement:  A comprehensive virtualization platform will allow multi-level, flexible access control. Look for a solution that allows an administrator to grant or deny access to data at many levels, such as by groups, roles or individuals.
  • Mobile Access: Data access requests don’t always happen Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, especially in healthcare. Make sure your data virtualization solution is accessible remotely via any browser so that access to data can be established and granted when it is needed, without requiring a trip into the office.
  • No Coding, eDaaS Enablement: Enterprise IT staff have enough on their plates – look for a data virtualization solution that helps IT save time and effort by enabling an internal eDaaS platform.

Meet immediate commitments, solve management issues
According to Forrester Research, growing investments in new data management capabilities highlight the importance of solving tough information management problems. Enterprise architects must seek solutions with long-term, enterprise benefits that also help project teams deliver on immediate commitments. Use unmet data integration requirements to evaluate data virtualization and introduce it into your enterprise. Develop an information integration architecture that employs a canonical business model at the center and then work with internal stakeholders to identify opportunities for enterprise-wide deployments.

Data virtualization can provide single point, real time access to multiple, diverse data sources, including third-party, mainframe, relational, NoSQL, Cloud, etc.

Unlike data warehousing or competing data virtualization solutions, data flows bi-directionally, meaning it can call data for integrating into various applications or analysis tools, as well as send updates back to the original source when needed. What’s more all interaction is real time so the data called is always relevant and accurate without synchronization issues.

For IT and data governance administrators, it makes providing data access easier for the end user and more manageable for IT while supporting data governance policies.

Virtualization enables connecting to legacy data in minutes, even the notoriously "hard-to-access" mainframe data. As enterprises are no longer forced to migrate off older technologies, they can let data remain on the original platform and still achieve seamless, intuitive access, for the long haul, or choose to migrate data on their terms. In the end, organizations immediately realize the benefits of migration without the risk or investment of time, capital and energy to migrate.