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Navigating a Murky Analytics Landscape

February 24, 2014
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Gene Thomas, the CIO and vice president of Gulfport Memorial, understands that the population health analytics landscape is considerably murky and uncertain. 

This is, after all, a developing field in healthcare. In one of the pre-conference symposia sessions, a leader at an ACO nonchalantly told us how analytics didn't change physician data behavior. The physicians brushed the analytics off. That's what we're dealing with, when we talk about population health analytics in healthcare. 

Yet, as Thomas explained to me at HIMSS14 in Orlando, this should not deter providers from going all in, as leaders at the 445-bed hospital in Gulfport, Ms. have done. In fact, I'd wager to say if anyone is on the fence, wondering if they should invest in an analytics platform in an environment where IT budgets are tied up as is, they should give Thomas a call. 

"The advice (to other CIOs) I would give and sometimes do give is that this best-of-breed model of standalone applications of care has its benefits, but long term it's not the right path. In integrated systems you need to (collect) rich data in a uniform matter," Thomas said. 

Gulfport has invested in an analytics platform from Health Catalyst, a Salt Lake City analytics/warehousing vendor. Thomas told me that the analytics platform (Gulfport began implementing it in late November) will help marry its existing data with new data from its new house-wide Cerner electronic medical record (EMR) system. But more than just normalizing the data for a healthcare provider that has multiple parts and systems, it will expose where there are variabilities in care with its patient population. This will allow the provider to manage those costly populations better than just the "test and release" method, as Thomas calls it. 

"Only data helps you identify those (costly) patients, even to the point where if I have to pick them up every three months, take them to the doctor, and pay for the medications, I'm going to lose less money (than if that patient is admitted to the ER). You can't do that without data. We've got to improve outcomes," Thomas said. 

But still, Thomas and Health Catalyst knows there is a lot of trepidation around analytics in healthcare. The vendor actually released a very revealing study this week that found six out of 10 health IT professionals rated their data analytics adoption maturity around 0-to-2 out of a scale of nine. Seventy-six percent rated the industry's adoption of analytics as falling in one of the three lowest levels of the maturity model. 

Why is it so low? Dan Burton, CEO of Health Catalyst, rated as a 2013 Up-and-Comer by Healthcare Informatics, said in our meeting that because analytics is new, people have a fear about approaching it in the right way. Plus, there are limited resources for investment. 

Importantly, there's the issue of data integrity and getting physicians on board. Thomas understands that if the data is off, in any way, shape, or form, there will be significant doubt. "Our chief medical officer hit that point to (Burton) and company, data integrity is the first foundational part...if the data doesn't have integrity, you can't prove it, the physician will say, 'I don't trust the data,'" he said.

Still, there is a way to win them over, even if the data is wrong. "With an agile approach, we have applications and tools that enable us, first of all, to get a good enough answer. But then, the tools are in place that when a physician is in a meeting and says, 'The way you define that population isn't quite right.' In the meeting, we can ask for a better definition, get one, and change it right there," Burton said. 

Thomas said to me that he believes this will ultimately "feed the desire" of the physicians to create better outcomes for the patients. He said, this is why picking the analytics vendor was an even more important decision for the organization than choosing that enterprise EMR.

"This is not about the technology, this is about (how you) get the data to the rest of the C-Suite to make process change and engage patients for compliance and adherence. The CIO thought process has to change from networks and bits and bites, that's not my role, my role is to provide the strategic tools, and the right dataset with data integrity, and allow the organization to use that to improve care and reduce cost," Thomas said.