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Pairing up
Early adopters of Big Data seek advisers, partners

By Joseph Conn
Posted: June 15, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

Like partners choosing up for a dance—or, depending on one's outlook for the healthcare industry, teams forming for a game of dodgeball—provider organizations wanting to be early adopters of Big Data and large-scale data analytics programs are busy picking out their advisers and health information technology providers.

The aim of those data analytics early birds is to better leverage their already heavy investments in healthcare information technology to improve care, control costs and ready their organizations for the advent of outcomes-based reimbursements.

All of this pairing up comes as 77% of hospitals and more than half of office-based physicians have adopted electronic healthcare-record systems, according to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CMS data from the federal EHR incentive payment program. The feds, under the program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, have paid providers more than $14.6 billion to adopt, implement, upgrade and meaningfully use EHR systems.

Now, for some, Job 1 is blending clinical data from those EHRs with information gleaned from financial systems, payers and other providers in super databases, often called enterprise data warehouses, and then using data analytics software and techniques to rapidly query and make sense of it all.

“I think we're seeing the beginning stages of the next phase,” said Dr. Kevin Fickenscher, president and CEO of the American Medical Informatics Association. “With the deployment of electronic health records, we have all this information that was dead data, on handwritten notes that was on paper, and now we have this data (digitized) and we can do analytics on it. Particularly, the large systems are recognizing the next phase is here.

“The healthcare organizations that make these investments in analytics are going to be the ones who end up the winners,” Fickenscher said.

Two weeks ago, Seattle Children's Hospital announced it had picked IBM and Brightlight Consulting of Redmond, Wash., “to fully understand the hospital's 'Big Data'—the thousands of data points associated with each child—immediately, as needed,” Wendy Soethe, the hospital's enterprise data warehouse manager, said in a news release.

Last week, Partners Healthcare, Boston, the corporate parent of Massachusetts General Hospital, arguably the birthplace of health IT in the U.S., disclosed it had plunked down $1 million and joined the venture capital arms of Kaiser Permanente and Indiana University Hospital that had already contributed $7 million, to invest in Health Catalyst, a data warehouse and analytics firm based in Salt Lake City. Partners will be a customer, too, deploying Health Catalyst technology at its multi-hospital, multi-clinic system.

“We do a lot of analytics today, but the data is siloed, and our analysts spend a good portion of their time actually pulling that data together so they can do the analytics,” said Partners CIO Jim Noga. “The cool approach with Health Catalyst is they'll cut that time out so they can focus on analysis and not on data gathering.”

Two days later, group purchaser Premier, IBM and four major healthcare systems unveiled their Data Alliance Collaborative, which will focus initially on developing data analytics methods targeting medication noncompliance and preventable hospital readmissions. The participating providers, which combined, operate or manage more than 70 hospitals, are the Carolinas HealthCare System, Charlotte, N.C.; Catholic Health Partners, Cincinnati; Fairview Health Services, Minneapolis; and Texas Health Resources, Arlington.

“We've been working on this for over a year, defining the operating model, and getting their warehouse instances up and deployed,” said Sean Cassidy, general manager, enterprise provider analytics for the GPO. Initially, Cassidy said, “Members are going to deploy analytics on their own data sets,” but then they will collaborate with each other and Premier experts on benchmarking using larger, shared and normalized data sets.

Veteran health IT market watcher Vi Shaffer is research vice president for Gartner Research, Stamford, Conn., which tracks information technology across many industries, including healthcare.

Over the years, she's watched the fortunes of would-be technological advances rise and fall—and, if they're good enough, rise again to widespread adoption, following what's called the Gartner “hype cycle.”

“It is the perfect methodology for strategic planning,” helping leaders avoid the risk of being too early or too late in adopting a technology, Shaffer said.

The cycle starts with a “triggering” event, the introduction of a game-changing new idea, which, if it gains currency, rises up to “the peak of inflated expectations.” That's where “things are promoted more than can be delivered,” Shaffer said. Then, typically, the innovation falls through the “trough of disillusionment,” and either fades away or begins to rise again, up the slope of enlightenment toward the plateau of productivity.

“So, the hype around Big Data is an example,” Shaffer said. “It's at its peak. It seems so pervasive.”

In comparison, computerized physician-order entry, a high-level function of an electronic health-record system that in the early 2000s posed a threat to the career of a chief information officer or chief medical information officer trying to install it, had edged onto the plateau of productivity, according to 2012 analysis by Gartner. Personal health records, meanwhile, remained in the trough of disillusionment.

The time between peak and trough is when partnerships are formed, venture capital money flows in and “the vendors are roiling at the same time the health systems are trying to buy,” Shaffer said. “Everything has speeded up.”

The way Big Data is moving, Shaffer said, it may be another two to five years before that concept reaches the plateau of productivity, where it becomes commonplace with 30% to 50% of organizations using it.

For now, she said, using data analytics for population health management is a bit ahead of Big Data in the hype cycle, but she hesitated to give an estimate of when it might come into widespread acceptance, saying that's the subject of a research report due in July.

The good news—or maybe not—is that with the advent of EHRs, healthcare, historically a laggard in terms of IT use, is catching up with other industries, Shaffer said.

“The takeaway for the healthcare executive is, we've always thought of the value in IT is in applications—EHRs, scheduling, supply-chain management,” Shaffer said. “Executives need to elevate information to equal importance with applications. They need to align investments in information assets with their business strategies,” she said.

That means looking for ways “to align information with high-impact activities” that will change their healthcare systems, enabling them to move into new areas of service. “As part of your culture and your core competencies, you now need to own leveraging information,” Shaffer said.

Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn

Dr. Jon Nielsen of North Memorial Health Care in Minnesota demonstrates Health Catalyts' data analytics

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