Healthcare analytics has a long way to go – but could get there quickly

I'm not always a fan of assigning a score, on the fabled scale of one to 10, to assess the maturity or readiness of a particular sector of a particular industry.

But sometimes, as it was at the HIMSS Big Data and Healthcare Analytics Forum in San Francisco this past week, getting those who work in the trenches to hang a specific number on it can be illustrative.

At the conference, I moderated a panel featuring four healthcare professionals whose heterogeneous approaches to the management and use of healthcare data together offered an interesting snapshot of how U.S. healthcare is doing with its IT-enabled analytics initiatives.

The panelists' answers to the following question were surprisingly unanimous: "On a scale of 1 to 10, where is healthcare on its journey to being an advanced user of data and analytics to improve care, control costs, and create operational efficiencies?"

Across the board, each expert assessed healthcare's readiness at a "3" or lower.

"Two," said Douglas Nowak, executive director enterprise data and analytics at Sanford Health. "Maybe two-and-three-quarters."

Each expert was of the broad consensus that the technology now exists to store, scrub, streamline, share and scrutinize the mountains of data that have been amassed since EHRs became basic and ubiquitous utilities these past 10 years or so.

But they also agreed that cultural factors related to information governance and basic data literacy were big impediments to truly taking advantage of it all. Too often, even the smartest and most well-trained clinicians don't know the right questions to ask to get the most from their data.

For all the progress made over the past decade – and let's pat ourselves on the back that we've has come a long way in a short time, especially when compared with the paper-based system that existed as recently at the late 2000s – most healthcare organizations are still far behind other industries when it comes to capitalizing on the treasure trove of data that exists.

As Cleveland Clinic Chief Information Officer Ed Marx noted in his keynote (showing a chart from The International Institute for Analytics that ranked the various industries in their ability to harness data) healthcare providers ranked last – lagging health insurers, utilities, groceries, manufacturing, pharma and medical devices, and, of course, financial services.

To make up that ground, a lot has to happen, both with our clinical and financial data and those across healthcare who put it to work, said Marx, pointing to a future where "data is readily available, understood and expected" and "discussions are interactive and supported by data discovery and intuitive visualizations."

It won't be easy, of course, and it will require continued "investment in technical and human resources," he said.

That said, we're closer than we may think. And certainly closer than we were just a few years ago.

"The best in healthcare are competing with the best in other industries in terms of analytics," said Lee Pierce, chief data officer at Sirius Computer Solutions. "There’s a lot going on here."

At the HIMSS Big Data forum, many of those stories were told. And taken together, the anecdotal experiences of some of the country's leading-edge health systems suggests that advances in data literacy and smart analytics initiatives could be creating a gravitational pull that might drag the rest of healthcare along with it.

St. Charles Health System, for instance, is harnessing a small staff to develop in-house predictive models, using it’s own data, customized to solve their specific clinical and operational challenges, according to Michael Johnson, a data scientist at the hospital. 

The Academy for Population Health Innovation at University of North Carolina is building a next-generation analytics infrastructure to drive innovation and gains in its population health management programs, said Michael Dulin, MD, APHI Director. 

And the Staten Island Performing Provider System is using real-time data to drive improvements on its unique quality measures and closing the gap with more traditional healthcare providers, said CIO Anyi Chen. 

All told, those case studies and others showed that, in multiple very different settings, heartening progress is being made. And that healthcare – despite its slowness compared with other industries – may be on the cusp of some big transformations for the better.

They suggested that, with the IT infrastructure now in place and wider awareness about the value of data on the rise, providers can (and probably will) make up a lot of ground in a short time.

"We are achieving value,” Pierce of Sirius said. “We’re just not as good at telling and sharing those stories."

The next HIMSS Big Data and Healthcare Analytics Forum is scheduled for October 22-23 in Boston. Register here. 

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
Email the writer: [email protected]

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