Data analytics poses big challenges, but offers big rewards

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from FierceHealthPayer's new eBook, Payers and providers: Using data analytics to identify fraud and waste. Check out all of the articles, including case studies from healthcare organizations, by downloading the eBook here.

A number of factors, including accountable care and payment reform, have contributed to a huge increase in the emphasis on data to improve quality, cut costs and boost efficiency in healthcare.

For most healthcare organizations, integrating all that information and effectively using it remains a dream.

In a recent Oracle survey, for example, 77 percent of healthcare leaders rated their organization a "C" or below in their ability to manage the data deluge. The volume and complexity of data poses challenges that range from identifying sources of data to crunching the numbers and identifying problems to finding and implementing solutions.

Over the past two years, Ochsner Health System in Jefferson Parish, La., has invested in data warehousing and recently launched a new electronic health record system.

Chris Belmont (pictured), vice president and CIO for the non-profit, academic, multi-specialty healthcare delivery system, oversees the technology from four hospital information system vendors and integration of 28 systems that feed into the warehouse.

"If somebody says, 'How many visits did we have in the clinic yesterday?' I can ask five people and get five different answers, and they might all be right," Belmont says. "It might be the number of unique people who walked in the door. If a patient came in and saw a doctor, then had an X-ray and had some lab work done, that might be considered three visits from a labor perspective. It might the number of charges dropped per clinic. You can slice and dice the word 'visit' a lot of different ways."

But making it all work together, he says, is difficult. "There's just a lot of data mapping--that's the time consuming thing when we want to aggregate a lot of this data," Belmont says. "We spend a lot of time making sense of it." Further, according to Belmont, the data warehouse isn't being used to its full potential. Instead of running historical reports, he'd like to see more surveillance and predictive activities, as well.

Belmont likens the complexity of data in healthcare to financial services data.

"You can go to an ATM at any country gas station and get money out. So somehow they figured that out," Belmont says. "I'm not willing to concede that [healthcare is] unique and this is just an impossible task." Belmont adds he wants to see "everything"--and he wants to see it in real time. "Airlines know where all the planes are [at all times]," he says. 

Which is not to say that Ochsner hasn't benefited from the level of data analytics it does now.

For example, the organization daily mashes staffing data with patient volumes so that managers can flex their staff in real time. Belmont estimates the system has saved Ochsner $3 million in the first year alone.

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