The Case for Involving Physicians in Data Analytics

Hospitals and health systems increasingly have access to large amounts of data about their patients, including information from EMRs, billing systems, electronic prescribing systems, health information exchanges and other sources. Additionally, the industry as a whole recognizes the potential in this data to provide actionable insights into population health, high-risk patient management, clinical best practices and other business insight that will become increasingly important as the industry moves toward value-based reimbursement.

It is no surprise, then, that data analytics has become an increasingly popular topic in the healthcare industry. However, a recent survey conducted by the eHealth Initiative and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives revealed while 80 percent of CIOs and other healthcare executives believe data analytics are important to their organizations' strategic goals, 84 percent said using big data presents a challenge — especially in terms of staffing. Just 17 percent reported having staff trained to collect and analyze data.

An emerging solution to these staffing shortages is to recruit physicians into data analytics efforts. Physicians are scientists by training with superior analytic skills and have both a deep knowledge of the hospital's clinical operations and a vested interest in improving care quality.

Additionally, engaging physicians in data analytics efforts puts the results into the hands of those who should be making use of them. Physicians make the vast majority of clinical decisions, and their choices have the potential to significantly affect a hospital's bottom line, says Phil Polakoff, MD, senior managing director and chief medical executive of healthcare firm FTI Consulting. Therefore, enlisting physicians' help in data analytics will lead to a buy-in to the results which will lead to changes in physicians' behavior, "If they have the data analysis, they can change their behavior for the better," he says.

In his recent paper, "Calling Dr. Data," Dr. Polakoff cites the example of Crystal Run Healthcare, a physician-owned practice in Middletown, N.Y. To prepare the practice for success under impending value-based contracts, the group began a data analytics program with physician participation to focus the organization on delivering high-quality care while reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

The group launched a pilot focused on diabetes control to test the new program. For one year, the practice collected and analyzed data on treatment costs, plans and outcomes among the group's diabetic patients. While physicians were initially skeptical of the results, especially those that implied there was room for improvement, the hard numbers were able to provide actionable evidence that inconsistent treatment methods led to variation among physicians in both cost and quality of care. That insight led to a collaborative effort to standardize treatment practices — and produced a 20 percent drop in costs the following year while maintaining care quality.

Forging a partnership with physicians on data analytics does entail overcoming significant cultural hurdles. "Data has historically been seen as punitive to physicians," says Dr. Polakoff. "It has been a way to identify the physicians who had longer lengths of stay or higher costs. It hasn't been perceived as a way to collectively work together to improve quality." Additionally, a lack of structured roles for physician data-crunchers and no compensation for data analytics work are currently keeping physicians from engaging in big data programs, he says.

Establishing a data program that involves physicians, therefore, requires clear administrative leadership on the goals of the program and physicians' roles. "Hospital executives need to be fully engaged in this," says Dr. Polakoff.

Additionally, there needs to be a level of transparency in the program to help foster physician buy-in. "It's helpful to let them know how the data will be used, how it will help foster informed decision-making in both clinical issues and process improvement," he says.

Many physicians are already eager to lend a hand to data analytics programs — and as of December, some have been board-certified to help. Clinical informatics, spearheaded by the American Medical Informatics Association with the goal of advancing the use of big data analytics in healthcare, was approved as a subspecialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties in 2011. The first group of physicians sat for the first board exam this October, with 455 receiving certification this year.

"What makes this subspecialty interesting is that any primary specialty diplomate can apply to become board certified in clinical informatics," said AMIA Incoming Board of Directors Chair Blackford Middleton, MD. "It is illustrative of the ubiquitous need across our entire healthcare delivery system to engage with professionals who understand how to improve the value of care with informatics." 

More Articles on Data Analytics:

Top 3 Analytics Challenges for Payers
How Data Analytics Helped Spark a $36.5M Turnaround at Boston Medical Center
U.K. to Share Patient Records in Nationwide Database

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