Analytics guru Pamela Peele talks about following her instinct and landing her dream job

The UPMC executive is leading more than a few cutting-edge projects at the health system.
UPMC executive Pamela Peele

LAS VEGAS – UPMC Chief Analytics Officer Pamela Peele may have taken the road less traveled to Pittsburgh 12 years ago, but she is certain it’s where she is meant to be.

The work fits her to a T.

“It has been an amazing 12 years,” she told Healthcare IT News in an interview at HIMSS18. “We have really transformed the analytics section of what we do there,” she said. “We’ve stood up an incredibly sophisticated learning shop.” 

[Also: UPMC Hillman Cancer Center uses analytics to improve care quality with CMS Oncology Care Model]

It’s a shop that employs machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

“We do some really cool things that nobody else does,” Peele said.

Among the “cool things” is grooming up big layers of data. Other analytics folks groom up big data layers too, she knows. Peele takes it a step further. She geo-codes everybody.

“We have a big registry, we keep everybody in,” Peele said. “Everyone has coordinates, latitude and longitude. Now I can find everybody wherever they are on the map because I geo-coded everybody.”

A little more than a year ago, she took a map of western Pennsylvania, which is where the bulk of UPMC Health Plan members are. She put everybody on the map according to where they live.

“We made each person as tall as their number of chronic conditions,” she explained. “So, if you had no chronic condition you were at ground level.

She used 31 chronic conditions for the project. “So, you could be as tall as 31 or as short as zero,” she said. She used a bit of mathematical technique to smooth it all.

“What you end up with is a cube,” she said. “It’s a geographic area, it’s 31 tall. Now, I can slice through that cube however far down I want to go – I can show you the mountains and valleys of chronic disease – geographically. It’s fascinating to look at it.”

She lights up when she talks about visualization techniques that make it possible to see what the iceberg looks like underneath.

“I can show you the base of all these mountains, which is tilted, which is really cool,” Peele said. “What you learn when you look at this is there are some very distinct geographical areas that have a very high burden of chronic disease. There are big mountains – they pop right out.”

Geographically, over a very short space, the disease that are in these mountains are different. South of Pittsburgh, there’s a huge diabetes belt.

“My goodness – oh, my, my, my!” Peel exclaims, shaking her head at the thought.

Northwest of Pittsburgh, there is one skinny little mountain that has twice the treatment prevalence of cancer than any other place she studies. 

As fascinating as pools of data might be to someone like Peele. It’s not the end-all.

Once the data is collected and analyzed, “it’s about boots on the ground,” she said.We put resources into communities – our care management resources.” What the care management piece looks like usually depends on location.

South of Pittsburgh, care management should look like diabetes education, prevention and treatment. What they look like in the northern part of the state? “COPD,” she said. “There’s a lot of COPD sitting there.

She gauges the prevalence of diseases by each region. That drives what resources UPMC will offer and how they are deployed. Peele does not know of another health system doing this type of detailed work.

For the past two years, Peele has also been part of UMPC Enterprises team, the commercial arm of UPMC, which stands up businesses such as Vivify Health, Lantern, evolent Health and xealth.

“We have thousands of employed physicians,” Peele noted. “We have 3.4 million covered lives on our insurance side. We have the ability to learn what works and to exploit it.”

As she sees it, UPMC has enough courage to disrupt itself.

“We’re not going to invest in anything we’re not going to use. If we invest in them, we put the solution right into our system, she said.

Long road to UPMC

Peele’s journey to UPMC was a long and winding one. Born in Florida, she was the first in her family to leave the state. She was also the first to go to college.

She went to a community college in Roanoke, Va, at night while working at the VA hospital in Salem, Va. She quit the hospital and over the next couple of years she went to Roanoke College full time, with the goal to graduate as soon as possible.

The answer to her question, “how can I get out of here the quickest,” was either business administration or economics. She went for economics. She was 33 at the time, and a clear contrast to her 18-year-old classmates.

Soon, she was applying for graduate programs and was rejected five times. She finally parlayed her way into Virginia Tech, where she studied health economics. Her PhD is in game theory, like one of the founders of game theory, the late John Nash, of “Beautiful Mind” fame.

Peele has two guiding principles for life and work.

“Follow the twinkle in your eye,” she advocates. “Every time you’re making a decision about what you’re going to do, consider does it put a twinkle in your eye? If the answer is ‘no,’ move on.”

The second principle is: Live below your means. As she sees it, when you do that, it makes it possible to follow the twinkle wherever it leads.

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