Analytics – Much More than Reporting!
The field of healthcare analytics may not be as awe-inspiring as the space program (see postscript below to see the context of this comment), but it is an exciting field to be in at this time! The volumes of data now available, along with the myriad tools available to analyze and visualize that data, present many exciting challenges and opportunities for innovation as we strive to improve the efficiency and safety of the healthcare system.
It still strikes me as odd how many people in healthcare view business intelligence and analytics tools with such limited scope. The other day I was asked by a hospital administrator, “so, how many reports does your Emergency Department decision support system have.” We are definitely not, repeat NOT, reaching our analytics potential if we gauge our accomplishments based on how many reports we’ve built.
We’re in the “Problem Solving” Business
As opposed to the “report-building” business, I prefer to think that analytics professionals in healthcare are in the “problem solving” business. Hospital administrators, department managers, and quality improvement specialists should be including analytics professionals in problem solving teams to address the particular challenges of healthcare, whether those challenges be clinical, financial, or regulatory in nature. Analytics experts are at their best when working with subject matter experts to identify which data is available, what analysis is appropriate, and what visualizations can bring those results to life.
As it turns out, sometimes the solution to a problem lies in the development of a report. (In fact, all things being equal, data should always be presented in the simplest and clearest manner that conveys the information required.) But business intelligence and analytics tools provide so much more power than that. A willingness to think differently, experiment a little, and push boundaries can result in solutions that are much more intuitive and useful than what was previously considered, or even possible.
How Can You Quantify Innovation?
So, when asked about the number of reports in our system, I didn’t have an immediate answer for the administrator’s question because, in all honesty, I don’t know how many reports are in our Emergency Department decision support system. Yes, there are lots, because in many ways our system has grown by aggregation over the years due to the many report and data requests we receive. But, to truly do our system justice, I needed to impress upon him the unique solutions we’ve been able to develop (with VERY modest resources).
Many of the coolest analytic applications by team has been able to implement on our business intelligence platform are not report-like at all. For example, we built a real-time dashboard to help ambulance dispatchers route ambulances to the least-busy Emergency Departments. We’ve also been able to implement artificial intelligence algorithms to enhance influenza surveillance during peak flu season. And, we’ve been able to keep patients in the waiting room better informed of their expected waiting-times.
Analytics Enhances Decision-Making At All Levels
The analytics team would never have been able to build these unique innovations on their own initiative without a particular problem being identified by subject matter experts. But, having analytics experts on special healthcare project teams can result in truly innovative data-driven solutions to healthcare’s most challenging problems. When information is built into the solution of a particular problem (rather than just identifying baseline data or evaluating outcomes), evidence- and data-based applications can begin to permeate throughout healthcare. This can enhance the decision-making at all levels of healthcare and ultimately lead to improved patient safety and better operational efficiency.
Postscript – A Tribute
This article is partially inspired by the fact that the day the initial draft was written (July 22, 2011) marked the final landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-135. With this mission, the American Space Shuttle program comes to an end. Probably better than any other engineering feat, the Space Shuttle fleet represents what is possible when passion and innovation are applied to a problem. Anyone familiar with the shuttle will acknowledge that in many ways, the shuttle represents a compromise design. The resultant effort, however, has inspired millions of people, spanning across a couple of generations over 30 years, to reach for the impossible. I have the utmost respect for the thousands of men and women who designed, built, maintained, and flew each of the orbiters in the fleet spanning the life of the program. Although the end of the shuttle program is marked with sadness, I cannot wait to see what innovations these great minds achieve next!