Data executives can help hospitals save lives, cut costs

New data streams rapidly are increasing the mounds of information that hospitals and health systems must sift and sort. A primary goal for most organizations is to capitalize on such data in various ways, such as improving care, reducing readmissions and cutting unnecessary costs.

However, according to recent research from the National Quality Forum, providers are struggling to make good use of their data. Challenges cited in the report include leveraging data for benchmarking and quality improvement and ensuring data are meaningful and clinically relevant.

All of those hurdles represent patient lives and money being left on the table.

To that end, health systems would be wise to consider hiring a chief data officer (CDO).

In a recent interview with FierceHealthIT, Nicholas Marko, CDO for Danville, Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, shared why he thinks the position represents more than just an employee who deals with databases.

"The reason why the CDO merits being an executive-level position is because there's a very strong strategic component if you're doing the job right," Marko said. "It's not just about how do you compute information; it's not just about who gets what information put in their hands. You want the person who's figuring out how to use your information most effectively to be at the same table with the person who's figuring out your business strategy, your marketing and product development strategy, your budget, etc."

Furthermore, he said, there are distinct differences between CIOs and CDOs that cannot be overlooked. Marko called lumping those two positions together a "game of diminishing returns," noting that while technology executives are vital to hospitals, they don't have the same set of skills as data executives.

"Saying that data executives and technology executives are the same is like saying that cars and highways are intimately associated, so the same person should build and manage cars and highways," he said. "But there's a whole science to building highways and there's a whole science to building cars; they're two different things."

The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Marko shared how Geisinger is taking advantage of its data and its personnel to improve patient care through programs such as "Geisinger in Motion"--which focuses on how data is coming from a variety of sources and how patients interact with the system, accordingly. It's also working on a "care gaps" initiative, which is designed to pinpoint patients at risk of slipping through the cracks.

Additionally, another facility employing a CDO, Seattle Children's Hospital, also is reaping the benefits of what it calls data-informed decision-making. In an interview with Healthcare Informatics, Seattle Children's CDO Eugene Kolker said the hospital's use of data analytics has helped prevent infections in the intensive care unit and improved survival rates for patients on ventilator care.

A 2013 report from McKinsey & Company estimated that big data could help U.S. citizens save as much as $450 billion on healthcare costs. Without someone dedicated to ensuring that all of the new streams of information are used to their fullest potential, how much of that data could be lost? - Dan (@Dan_Bowman and @FierceHealthIT)

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