But the announcement also highlights the divide between health systems that are ahead of the curve in working with sophisticated data analytics and those that are still learning how to collect and use that information.
For decades, many industries, such as financial services, have used data analytics to determine their strategies for everything from marketing to maintenance scheduling. But the healthcare sector as a whole has lagged in using analytics to learn about its customers' behavior and how to influence it.
“Clearly there are some places that are really innovative, but most systems are just starting this journey,” said Murtuza Mukadam, global head of healthcare strategy and solutions at consulting firm Virtusa.
Through the new partnership, HHS agencies will gain access to OptumLabs' big-data resources, including de-identified medical claims and clinical data. OptumLabs is a research and innovation center established by UnitedHealth Group's Optum health-services division and the Mayo Clinic.
The first research project, to be led by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, will compare the results of the government's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to OptumLabs' real-world claims data.
Large systems like Mayo and Geisinger Health System, which in 2013 launched its own technology and analytics group, xG Health Solutions, are starting to apply their research findings to changing their standards of care. Geisinger has spent $200 million on information technology over the past two decades. By using big data to identify its sickest patients, it has reduced hospital admissions by 27%, the system reported at a 2014 health IT conference.
Other systems are just starting to dabble in data analytics. Until recently, much of healthcare's IT efforts have focused on adopting electronic health records, or their digital infrastructure, as the government has pushed that transition through meaningful-use payments, Mukadam said.
It's only recently that providers have turned their attention to data analytics. As more healthcare providers take on financial risk for care outcomes, they are finally seeing the financial incentives for making the analytics investment.
“People are waking up,” said Munzoor Shaikh, a director in the healthcare practice of consulting firm West Monroe Partners. “People are just starting to understand the problem a bit better.”
Yet one of the biggest barriers to effectively using data analytics is confusion over how much and what type of data to collect, according to a survey from Stoltenberg Consulting, which collected responses at this year's Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society meeting.