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More Than a HIPAA Compliant Surveying Tool

October 15, 2013
by Gabriel Perna
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The sheer size of Advocate Health Care meant leaders at the organization were facing a unique problem.

One of the largest healthcare providers in Illinois, the health system is comprised of 12 separate hospitals, 250 sites of care, five Level I trauma centers, two Level II trauma centers, 6,300 physicians, 40,000 associates, and more than 34,000 employees. It has sites in rural, suburban, and urban locations. As Thomas Summerfelt, Ph.D., vice president of research at Advocate Health Care, says, the provider represents a “cross-section of the U.S.”

Dr. Summerfelt oversees a large team of researchers, and says at any given time, the organization may be conducting more than 800 active research studies. Half of those studies are typically clinical trials, he says, many of which are sponsored by the government, pharmaceutical or device companies, and the other half are “investigator-initiated” studies from clinicians or administrations within Advocate.

Having all those studies meant researchers at Advocate were conducting surveys through various online survey software tools, which didn’t comply with the rigorous requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy law and federal financial conflict-of-interest reporting regulations. This fragmentation meant that tracking access to those private data points became a challenge for Advocate.

In terms of financial conflict-of-interest reporting, Summerfelt says the new laws required health organizations that received funds around research to manage conflict-of-interest reporting more meticulously. Advocate, he says, needed to build a platform where everyone across the enterprise could survey within HIPAA and conflict-of-interest regulations.

Custom-Built Platform

Instead of going the traditional vendor module route, Summerfelt says, Advocate found a platform that allowed it build everything it needed for surveying software, in terms of reporting and management. He says the product (from the Provo, Utah-based Qualtrics) saved the organization thousands of dollars while tailoring the reporting and providing access to only the required parties.

“You can go through a thousand people working in research, and maybe 30 would have a conflict that needs to be managed. It’s fairly costly to buy that [system] outright and in the end you don’t really need it, except that small portion of folks,” Summerfelt says, adding that the customized platform from Qualtrics allowed them to “build on the fly.”

The system has a built-in credentialing system, which gives researchers the ability to sign up and then begin to survey and collect data within legal confines. Advocate, Summerfelt says, can use the system to survey their own researchers on the conflict-of-interest information as well as share best practices across the enterprise. The biggest advantage to the system, he says, is the cost factor as well as direct control of the data.

The system, Summerfelt says, is more than just a HIPAA- regulatory-compliant surveying tool. It can help researchers track data points, for instance within colorectal cancer studies, over time. This isn’t just data collected through the patient, but through chart review and clinician impressions. This kind of flexibility works not just within a clinical research setting, but can be used for administrative reasons as well like registration for a conference. If anything, he says, it’s more of an analytics tool than a surveying tool.

“As I’ve always joked, it’s a tool that is generic enough to adapt and to use with a little bit of creativity in a lot of different scenarios that unfortunately gets us out from having to find a vendor for X or a vendor for Y. It allows us to become self-sufficient,” Summerfelt says.

“Bigger and Broader”

The biggest challenge for Advocate in terms of this platform was dissemination across that large enterprise, along with providing training and demos to everyone who needed it. For this, the organization outsourced training and demos to Qualtrics.

Summerfelt and other leaders at Advocate have enhanced plans for the tool. He says its working with compliance to take what it did for research conflict-of-interest reporting and do it for conflict-of-interest reporting across the spectrum. The tool’s overall flexibility allows for outside-the-box thinking and limitless opportunities.

“This isn’t your standard online survey tool, one think can bigger and broader about how to utilize this generic tool in a lot of different creative ways,” Summerfelt says.