The Analytics Gap in Healthcare

by Trevor Strome on May 2, 2011

Recent advances in healthcare information technology (HIT) have resulted in a massive increase in the volume and complexity of healthcare data. As HIT continues to mature and the end-users (and end-uses) become more numerous and sophisticated, the number of computerized systems deployed throughout healthcare organizations (HCOs) is increasing. And, as the number of HIT applications increase, so does the total amount of data collected by these various systems.

This increase in healthcare data and ways with which it can be used, coupled with the expectations of end-users and executives, has highlighted an analytics gap within healthcare organizations. This gap is causing HCOs to become incredibly data-rich but embarrassingly knowledge-poor. Failure to address this analytics gap (or even to acknowledge its existence) will result in HCOs that are unable to gain the deeper insight into their clinical and business operations. This will result in missed opportunities for real transformation (that go beyond simply addressing the “surface issues”) in the efficiency and effectiveness with which healthcare is provided to patients. It is, then, the patients who will be losing out the most as a result of this analytics gap.

How to identify if an analytics gap exists

Almost every healthcare organization is investing in technology; new systems are always being rolled out, and older systems are being upgraded. But HIT is only one part of the solution. An analytics gap might exist within your HCO if, despite added information systems, important decisions at all levels (whether executive or department level) are being made with the same old data, reports, and analyses, as before. Or if accurate, timely, and readily available information is not making it to all levels within an organization (including the front-lines where information is desperately needed for quality improvement initiatives and performance management). If an HCO is undertaking improvement initiatives and change is not occurring (or, there is not enough reliable information to properly evaluate the outcomes), then an analytics gap definitely exists.

What is causing the gap?

It is likely that analytics gaps exist throughout every organization; the key is to recognize that improvements can be made and to start addressing potential causes. Although not necessarily a comprehensive list of every possible cause of an analytics gap, the following four categories for why an analytics gap might be occurring within an HCO can help to identify areas that need to be addressed. Causes of an analytics gap might be system-wide or might be occurring within a single department or program.

  • Data is not accessible from source-systems. Obviously, analytics cannot be applied if no data is available. If despite having HIT systems in place but the data is locked into proprietary databases, or no provision exists for data to be extracted from source-systems, then much benefit from having computerized systems in the first place is lost.
  • Analytics tools are not available or sufficient. Even when data is available (that is, exported to some datamart or operational data store), it may not be connected to the right analytics tools. Some healthcare IT vendors include “analytics” components that might include a few canned or custom built reports and may be sold as an alternative to more capable (but sometimes more expensive) options. These HIT vendor-supplied tools may not be sufficient for more than a basic examination of the data, and may not allow deep analysis and exploration of the underlying data. Although high-end business intelligence suites are not necessarily required to have a credible analytics capacity, it is important to know the strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities of the tools available for analysis.
  • Analytics experts are not available. Many healthcare managers and executives have a basic understanding of statistics and can build simple reports, but they may not have the analytical skills beyond building spreadsheets and pie graphs. Analytics professionals come from many backgrounds, but typically have a basic understanding of database technology and are proficient in sophisticated statistical modeling and analysis, simulation techniques, and data visualization. Ideally, they have an understanding of the healthcare domain (or even specialty area such as Surgery, Emergency Medicine, etc).
  • Analytics tools and experts not fully utilized. Because of their multi-skilled nature, analytics professionals often work within the IT department as part of Business Intelligence groups, and may not be readily accessible to various HCO business units. Analytics applications have moved well beyond the development of dashboards and reports for HCO executives, however. Top-performing organizations must therefore have analytics experts that can be engaged in front-line quality and operations improvement initiatives that address the strategic goals of the business. Without analytics experts on healthcare improvement teams, initiatives may not benefit from the insight into, and analysis of, the data available to allow for truly transformational healthcare improvement projects.

Reducing the Analytics Gap

As mentioned, the above list is not a comprehensive list of all issues related to maximizing use of analytics resources. Rather, these four categories can help guide HCOs to recognize where gaps might exist in their analytic capability, and to begin to address those gaps.

HIT has promised to revolutionize healthcare. Yet without an effective analytics infrastructure (including both people and tools) in place to make the connection between data, goals of the healthcare organization, and the needs of the patient, success will be limited at best. Healthcare transformation requires bold steps; removing analytics gaps within an organization can help reduce the risk associated with taking bold steps and increase the likelihood of achieving true change.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lula Johnson September 8, 2013 at 9:34 pm

very informative article.


deborah davis January 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm

This is a very timely article as our healthcare system is going through an enormous change. Definitely, lots of data exists but the complexity of HIT applications can inhibit changes in a system that could improve patient care.


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