Chief data officers come to healthcare

A new C-suite role aims to 'leverage data as a strategic institutional asset'
By Mike Miliard
08:53 AM
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As chief data officer at Seattle Children's Hospital, Eugene Kolker has a fairly unusual job title – especially for this industry. "In healthcare it's extremely, extremely rare," he says. But that may be changing.

[See also: Why should docs care about big data?]

"To my knowledge, I was one of the first couple" CDOs in healthcare, says Kolker, who took on that position at Seattle Children's way back in 2007.

The position, sometimes called chief analytics officer or chief data scientist or chief digital officer, he says, is rare across all industries but is finding traction across finance, insurance and other industries where a bit of targeted knowledge could mean huge savings or profits that would otherwise go unrealized.

[See also: Big data doesn't have to be 'Star Wars']

In finance, at least, "it depends who you talk to, but it's said there are100-200 CDOs worldwide," says Kolker.

IBM has called the chief data officer the "new hero of big data and analytics."

While "historically, data strategy has resided within IT," the exigencies of a new financial landscape has forced industries of all types to recognize the "importance of data" as something "necessary and integral to business strategy and execution," writes Chris Nott, chief technology officer for big data and analytics at IBM UK.

Indeed, says Kolker, at Seattle Children's, "our deal is trying to leverage data as a strategic institutional asset. It's not about technology. It's not IT. It's about how to transform data into information, how to transform information into better-informed decisions."

Kolker has more than 25 years of experience in data analysis, predictive analytics, and algorithm development. At Seattle Children's, he and a team of data scientists look for new ways to approach and, hopefully, improve some five dozen subspecialties and inpatient, outpatient, emergency and multiple other services.

On Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Healthcare IT News Big Data & Healthcare Analytics Forum in Boston, Kolker will participate in a panel discussing the "Keys to Creating a Data Driven Organization." He'll offer his perspective on helping foster the sort of  organizational infrastructure that's key to driving data-driven decision-making.

Seattle Children's data strategy "has three parts, a troika," he says.

"One is, of course, data: data science, analytics, modeling." The second aims to use CDO to build the service internally. "Within our own walls, we act as internal consultants," says Kolker. "And that has actually worked, for the past few years, really well. For those who don’t hire CDO, you can use an external service provider as CDO.”

The third component, he says, "is people skills, social skills. That's extremely important."

The key to translating data-driven insights into changes in behavior is ensuring that those most impacted are treated as "collaborators," says Kolker – "working together toward some shared goal with clear outcomes."

It's not nearly enough "to take a problem and just go in your room and solve it," he says. It's critical to work alongside different stakeholders "to understand what their needs are, to recalibrate to see whether this is where we're going together."

When decision-makers have that sort of buy-in, "they have a much higher chance, much higher probability to say, 'You know what, this is what we did together, this is important, I believe in this, this is what we need to do.'"

When Kolker became CDO at Seattle Children's, "I can tell you that for the first years it was very tough; we were not sure what to do, how to position ourselves."

But over the years, some best practices have emerged.

"You need to be aligned with both business and IT," says Kolker. "Business first, IT second."

In obvious ways, technology can make the job of a data scientist much easier, he adds, but without the right strategy in place it can also make it much more complicated.

"In our place we're working with the IT team very closely," says Kolker. "And it helps a lot because you have to navigate all these different systems.

"Compared to the big boys – I'm looking out my window at Amazon – or Google or Microsoft, we're not really big data. But we're complex data. And without IT that's very challenging."

But the past few years have seen "a lot of positive changes happening," he says, especially when it comes to Seattle Children's "current focus on utilizing benchmarking, to improve quality and safety."

Any advice for other organizations looking to dip their toes in the data-driven waters?

"They need to decide that they're going to be open-minded and are going to think about what are the important priorities for them right now," says Kolker. "When they figure out that one, they immediately can see potential wins and go along those lines in order to get to the key priorities.

"Then you build this multidisciplinary team of practitioners, of leaders, of managers, and also hopefully people who are inside and deal with data," he adds. If not, you can bring somebody from outside who has experience with these challenges and opportunities."

That "people angle" shouldn't be overlooked, he says.

"People talk about technology, and we need to have it. Data science, analytics? Absolutely. Business practices? Definitely. But still the major focus is people – who are going to make decisions or not, make interventions or not. The whole focus of what we do is to help people make better, data-driven decisions."

Once those strategies start to bear fruit – even modestly – with clinical or financial gains, targeted use of data can become addictive, says Kolker: "When you see the first successes, success breeds success."