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As pressure grows on hospitals, managing data becomes paramount

Health reform and the meaningful use program will make it critical for hospitals to develop effective data management strategies.

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Unless healthcare organizations put effective strategies for managing data into place, they could face major challenges in successfully navigating federal initiatives and operational improvements in the years ahead. Many might not even be able to keep their doors open.

In his keynote address at the Institute for Health Technology Transformation's Health IT Summit in Boston, Scott Lundstrom, group vice president at IDC Health Insights, said he believes half of existing hospitals will go out of business within the next 10 years. He cited a number of factors, including the focus on accountable care through the health reform law and the meaningful use incentive program, as obstacles for organizations. Whether it's the move toward accountable care, quality initiatives or technology programs, the ability to manage data effectively will help providers deal with these challenges, he said.

To think that we can make modest, incremental changes to a system that is already letting us down is naïve.

Scott Lundstrom, group vice president, IDC Health Insights.

Still, hospitals have a long way to go. Healthcare providers traditionally have done a poor job of selecting and managing technology investments, Lundstrom said. They often don't even know how many servers they have or which applications are running on them.

The consequences of poor planning for managing data will first start to show as providers transition to accountable care, Lundstrom said. This model of care relies on engaging patients, managing the health of populations and providing targeted preventive health measures. All these put a premium on leveraging data to its full potential.

For Lundstrom, this situation presents a good opportunity for hospitals to move to cloud services. Rather than buying servers that depreciate in value rapidly or investing staff hours in setting up networks and configuring applications, hospitals can get third-party cloud vendors to do the work for them. The key is that the vendor be willing to sign a business associate agreement (BAA). Signing a BAA was an issue when vendors first started showing up on the scene, but there are now more healthcare-focused technology companies that are willing to sign such an agreement.

"Organizations that remediate and plug-and-patch in a traditional model are going to fail," Lundstrom said. "You can't remediate your core stack and launch a patient portal and do remote visits all at once. You can have partners do that. To think that we can make modest, incremental changes to a system that is already letting us down is naïve."

About 80% of healthcare providers lack a strategy for managing data, which prevents them from being able to accomplish many of their goals, said William Hudson, senior healthcare strategist at VMware. "Until we get to the point where we can create a real strategy, we're not going to get to where we want to go," he said.

Part of the problem is that the volume of data that hospitals create and manage is growing exponentially. This makes it difficult to identify pieces of information that can be used in direct patient care, financial risk management or patient engagement. A hybrid strategy might be best for managing all this data, Hudson said, because some information, such as patient records, needs to be easily and quickly accessible, while other information, such as log files, needs to be accessed only occasionally. Frequently accessed data could be stored on enterprise servers, while less critical data could be stored off-site through cloud storage providers.

Developing a standardized IT infrastructure could be one way to manage data effectively, because it will enable data to be shared across platforms. There might be many ways to accomplish this, but Cara Babachicos, CIO of community hospitals for Partners Healthcare, said her organization is going with an enterprise-wide Epic installation. This will improve standardization across many care settings, making it easier for providers to get the information they need when they need it, she said.

Babachicos still expects challenges, however. The entire health system will use the same standards, but there still are different ways of interpreting standards. Additionally, IT workers will have to think about how data is organized across the system, which is no small feat. "Just purchasing a one-vendor system will not get you there," she said.

Ultimately, developing strategies for managing data could be more of a cultural challenge than a technical one. Jeffrey Brown, CIO at Lawrence General Hospital in Massachusetts, said cloud storage makes a lot of sense for some things, disaster recovery, for example. But moving to the cloud requires IT staff to give up some measure of control over services they've managed for decades. Sometimes workers may be slow to get on board with the change. One of his hospital's recent programs to increase cloud adoption focused mainly on education, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ed Burns, news writer or contact @EdBurnsTT on Twitter.

This was first published in May 2013

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