Plenty of healthcare data, but what to do with it?

By Eric Wicklund
09:54 AM
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The proliferation of mobile medical devices means providers, payers and even patients are collecting more data than ever before. But do they know what to do with it?

That was the focus of a panel discussion at last week's Institute for Health Technology Transformation summit in Seattle. Titled "Analytics in Healthcare: Leveraging Data for Organization-wide Improvements," the discussion focused on what's considered one of the hot topics in healthcare these days: Business intelligence.

That trend is being driven by payers, according to Lynn Dunbrack, program director for IDC Health Insights, the panel's moderator. Recent surveys, she said, have indicated that three-quarters of payers think analytics is vital, and more than half have a BI strategy in place. Conversely, she said, about 44 percent of providers see the value in analytics, and only 26 percent have a BI program in place.

Thomas Yackel, MD, an associate professor at Oregon Health Science University and chief health information officer at OHSU Healthcare, said data analysis is underappreciated at the provider level. While OHSU Healthcare may have been the first hospital in Oregon to attest for meaningful use, he said, "a lot of people don't know what (BI) is."

"We're building our own data warehouse now, but (in seeking funding for the project), we were behind people who wanted to put new carpet in waiting rooms," he said.

Steve Barlow, CIO and co-founder of Healthcare Quality Catalyst, a Salt Lake City-based developer of quality improvement solutions, said he helped launch a national data warehousing association in the '90s while at Intermountain Healthcare. "We've been at this for two decades-plus and we're still not making progress," he said.

But data analytics and business intelligence are showing up on the radar, the panelists said. With healthcare reform poised to make accountable care and improved clinical outcomes more vital, payers – and, eventually, providers – will see the value in taking collected data, analyzing it and drawing conclusions to affect future decision-making. Payers will use it to drive population-based outcomes, like preventive healthcare and wellness programs, and to justify healthcare expenses, while providers will see its value in improving clinical outcomes and reducing waste and re-admissions.

To do that, however, they need to get beyond the simple act of collecting data.

"It's not about just putting the data in there – it's about engaging in a conversation about that data," said Yackel.

There are also security concerns. Thomas Payne, MD, medical director of IT services for UW Medicine, said the problem isn’t getting the data, but regulating how it's used and who uses it.

"The problem is to take this incredible technical capability and match it with the appropriate insight," he said.
Everett Clinic' plan for data

Among the providers diving into the data stream is the Everett Clinic, a physician-owned, 12-location medical center in Everett, Wash., and the largest independent medical group in the state. Becky Hood, the center's CIO, said she's been overseeing a BI plan for the past three years, has hired the clinic's first-ever BI administrator and "can now say the words 'data warehouse' without being shunned."

In an interview conducted with SearchHealthIT.com and published in the online agenda for the summit, Hood said the clinic is using business analytics in several areas, ranging from reducing emergency room visits in the Medicare Advantage population to better budgeting to staffing and scheduling.

"Part of that is making sure we’re offering hours that the patient want to be seen in," she said in the interview. "We have evening and weekend hours, and the analytics to support it. This could impact clinical quality and hospital admissions, too; if patients feel they have access to their physician offices, they won’t need to visit the ED."

"In terms of some of the comparative analytics portion of Stage 2 (of meaningful use requirements), it’s a tricky thing to know what’s useful and valuable to compare," Hood added. "I don’t know that organizations have seen the value they hope will come out of those endeavors, but now that more physicians are on electronic records we can start looking for data in more consistent formats. What will be really powerful is when vendors begin integrating analytics applications into workflow – that’s where it’s most useful."

The panelists pointed out that physicians "are inundated with data right now" and need to be given the tools to make that data useful to them at the point of care. Too much data, or a lack of analysis, said Payne, threatens to "break the camel's back."

"There's pressure all the time to ask providers to enter one more data element," he pointed out. "And they come back with, 'How is this going to help the patient in front of me?'"
 

[See also: FCC gives the green light to wireless medical devices ]