Developing Your Healthcare Data Strategy with Key Themes from HIT Leaders  

October 4, 2022

Healthcare organizations are using data analytics to help provide their teams with the information needed to make smarter decisions while driving cost savings. (One example: Yale New Haven Health has saved more than $150 million from merging financial and clinical data and making it accessible for their clinical and administrative leaders.)

Experts predict artificial intelligence, process automation and big data will play a big role in the healthcare industry. But through the excitement around these billion-dollar buzzwords, a complex challenge emerges: how can we understand the data in front of us and use it to make informed decisions? Gaining access to healthcare data is the easy part of the journey; with data comes the tedious and challenging work of making it clean and accessible. Accurate, usable data will be crucial as health systems continue to seek new ways to improve performance and gain a deeper understanding of the cost of care.

Seeking to understand how CIOs and other healthcare leaders are viewing healthcare data analytics as a part of their overall strategy, Strata’s chief strategy officer, Steve Lefar, got the chance to meet with leaders from across the country to further the discussion. Through these conversations, Steve identified eight common themes and topics shared by CIOs on how they are developing smarter and more advanced analytics strategies. Below, read Steve’s take on each of these eight themes and how leaders are responding to move forward.

8 Themes CIOs Are Thinking About This Year 

1.) Don’t boil the ocean with your healthcare data strategy 

Health systems struggle with demands to do it all, to present every data element together. (Even if we can, we must always have the wisdom to ask if we should.) Success in our industry means getting the right data to the right people at the right time. Eric Lee, medical director of clinical informatics at Los Angeles-based AltaMed, echoed this when talking about the difficulty of bringing data together for insights. “How do you provide the right info at the right time for the right patient?” he asks.

To create truly “smarter” analytics, our organizations need to be able to produce accurate, activity- and time-driven costing, the way every other industry can today. We should be chasing that, determining which clinical and operational data is key to help us get there. Don’t boil the ocean. Focus on the key pieces of data that tell the story.

2.) Make healthcare data analytics consumable for end users 

We need to bring together cost and financial data with key (not all!) clinical and operational data. We need to link it, normalize it and make it consumable in tools that meet end users where they are. We must make it easier for the user, e.g. use advanced machine learning and visualization tools to elevate findings, such as auto filtering, anomaly detection, hot-spotting and heatmapping to help users draw informed conclusions. “You name it, we have it: Cloud, Edge, Python, visualization tools, etc.” says Dr. Shafiq Rab, chief digital officer and CIO at Burlington, Mass.-based Wellforce. “That’s not the big issue. It’s getting all the data together.”

Using advanced technology can help our human experts become “bionic professionals” of sorts, even when we don’t have the funding we might desire. On this topic, Scott MacLean, CIO of Columbia, Md.-based Medstar, says, “It’s important and valuable — and our biggest challenge — to organize our data well and make it useful. We don’t have a team of data scientists, but I advocate for investing in technology to get ahead of the curve.”

Don’t make end users search for insights and answers and instead use the tools and the data you have today to help them make the right decisions. Consider how you can make the data consumable for your end users.

3.) Get going. Tier your data into basic, essential, advanced and value-based for better analysis 

Let’s take an example of analyzing surgical costs. Leaders need to consider how their organization will access and use basic, essential, advanced and value-based information.

For starters, basic and essential data includes OR data, such as charge level (basic) or actual minutes (essential), actual labor cost averages (basic) or person-level wages (essential), standard or true supply costs, anesthesia costs, PACU time and procedural coding to examine case types and basic acuity.

Advanced data, which helps stratify risk, includes things like basic biometric data (BMI), social circumstances to cohort patients and claims data or details on clinical history.

Value-based data includes linking pre- and post-procedure information from claims or registry to tie cost and longer-term outcomes. Steven Lane, MD, clinical informatics director at Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health states that it is important to know what was done to enhance clinical quality outcomes. “We need to know what has been done so that we can target our follow up appropriately.” For example, he suggests taking the claims data to see who has had a bi-lateral mastectomy and use that to inform the clinical chart. “You do not need to do outreach for mammograms once this has been documented,” he says.

4.) Build an effective healthcare data strategy  

While new technologies such as cloud-based data lakes (and data marts), Python and commercial machine learning platforms have made it even more feasible, usable and more affordable to integrate retrospective and real-time data within tools, we need to avoid the atomic baloney slicer (a term I’m borrowing from an old friend). In analytics, one atomic baloney slicer is an overly complex, singular, monolithic enterprise database.

To avoid building these unnecessarily complex systems within our healthcare analytics strategies, it’s important that hospitals leverage their data for end users. Think of it like oceans of data (from source systems) flowing into lakes (data lakes) that flow into ponds (data marts) for smarter data sets for end users. To get the right data to the right people, you need to understand the problem that is trying to be solved. For Ben Petro, informatics analyst at the University of Chicago Medicine, this means thinking about the end user of data and how they will use it. In his case, senior leadership, executives and management level need access to this data weekly and need to be able to drill into volumes by service line.

Focus your data efforts on that problem with the least amount of data needed. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough. Do you really need real time data to make your projection? (Sometimes yes, but often no.) What are the tradeoffs from using more data? It’s about separating the signals from the noise. More data is not always better data. Do you need an atomic baloney slicer or will a butter knife work?

Creating bridges between different areas of a health system is necessary when building an effective healthcare analytics strategy.

5.) Build bridges between finance, IT, analytics and operations 

All this work requires cooperation between finance, IT, clinical, analytics and operations to get to the right solutions. Mitchell Fong, director of telehealth at Reno, Nev.-based Renown Health, is working to create new telehealth programs or “health at home” programs to help patients return to their normal lives faster after hospitalization through intermittent monitoring and interventions at home.

But the challenge is tying telehealth data to hospitals visits. “It’s hard to match up survey data to encounter data,” says Mr. Fong. “… And then we have to figure out how to get the telehealth visit back into the clinical record.” We know our teams can make better, more informed decisions with the right data at their disposal. That means connecting all the data points.

6.) Learn from the clinical side 

Normalization of data is critical to credibility. Health systems often struggle with combing through and normalizing data. Of the healthcare IT leaders we talked to, all described challenges linking clinical and financial data.

Dr. Lane (Sutter Health) told us that “usually clinical data is seen of a higher value.” Clinical data is ahead of financial and operational data in simplifying and normalizing. There have long been standards put into place such as procedure codes, LOINC, taxonomies, etc., already developed and in the market. Other than how we count dollars, basic accounting principles and a few standards for charts of accounts, Finance teams have had no way of normalizing their data prior to advancements made by data sharing consortiums like the StrataSphere® platform and network.

7.) Use cross-industry data and standards 

Organizations are looking to others across the industry to better understand and standardize data for stronger insights. Healthcare IT leaders consider not only their internal performance, but also how to understand it more deeply with alternative data (like social or claims) and to compare apples-to-apples externally. Healthcare is changing. Regulations around site of care payment differentials, what is allowed inpatient versus outpatient and the very nature of healthcare providers are also changing (e.g. the creation of venture and private equity backed groups with financial wherewithal).

Make sure your lens is not only focused on your traditional competitors in healthcare but also emerging providers and technologies. This creates a need for access to alternative kinds of data and cross-industry standards that don’t exist today for finance.

8.) Understand the goals and objectives of data sharing 

Data is considered the “new oil” and is being aggregated in many ways across industries and within healthcare. There have been many historical efforts to do this in healthcare and there are several new ones emerging. Some have failed, causing large financial losses, some don’t leverage modern technology to make it far easier (and less expensive) to share and participate and still others try to serve too many masters. One of the keys for leaders will be to understand the goals and objectives of each of those that they join and whether they appropriately solve challenges for their organizations.

B.J. Moore, executive vice president and CIO of Renton, Wash.-based Providence suggests that bringing data together requires 3 strategic pillars: “simplify, modernize and innovate.” To get the most out of your data, an organization needs to be able to consolidate to a cloud solution and centralizing systems. “Truly integrated reporting needs to be done at scale, which needs to be done in the cloud,” Mr. Moore says.

StrataSphere is one such collaborative that has enabled healthcare organizations to share and leverage deep, normalized, consistent, current financial and operational data. Participants can access this data directly, from over 400 health systems representing more than half of all spending in the U.S. attributable to hospitals and health systems (over $1 trillion).

These conversations are crucial and help us better understand what strategies healthcare organizations are using to be more successful with their healthcare data strategies. Hospitals and health systems finding the most success are those who have understood and established a goal for the use of their data, planning for scale and scope. Leaders from across the industry should lean on one another to learn, collaborate and improve healthcare data analytics utilization. Healthcare data analytics is tough and messy work, but with the right tools it becomes the key to healing healthcare.

For more information about how HIT leaders are using healthcare data analytics to advance their strategies, as well as how data is impacting healthcare, check out these articles: