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The future of health data analytics remains up for debate

Coordinated care models will place a premium on extracting meaning from data, but not everyone agrees on the best role for health data analytics.

Most health care professionals would agree that health data analytics has a role to play in making care safer and more affordable. But the exact nature of that role and the degree to which the industry has started to internalize analytics remains a matter of debate, with differences emerging among different stakeholders.

These differences of opinion were on display at the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium's HealthMart, held Oct. 2. Presenters discussed the function health data analytics could serve in improving the delivery of care, but not everyone believes widespread adoption will be a simple goal.

But the growing adoption of value-based purchasing systems, with models such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) and patient-centered medical homes, will put pressure on providers to adopt data analytics systems, speakers said.

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Dan Feinberg, director of the Northeastern University Health Informatics graduate program, said he believes that having the ability to analyze data will eventually become the equivalent of having electricity for medical practices. It will be a necessary part of delivering care and will become central to what doctors do on a daily basis, but analytics will become such a common tool that it will cease to differentiate practices from one another.

The manner in which practices interpret and utilize data is what could be the biggest change in health care. Feinberg discussed how many people in the industry today talk about the importance of measurement. "You can't change what you can't measure," the saying goes. But Feinberg said measurement in and of itself is useless. Measurement must eventually lead to cutting. Providers who do effective analytics may be able to identify areas where there is a large amount of waste or other ways to reduce costs. This should be the ultimate goal of measuring, Feinberg said.

"There's a lot of stuff happening and we're all going to be healthier for it," Feinberg said. "But there is going to be a shakeout eventually. You hear people saying, 'If we measure it, it will improve,' but you have to do something with what you measure. You can't assume that just because you measure it, [that] will encourage better behavior."

But just because analytics may not continue to be a cutting edge health care tool, it does not mean providers should overlook implementing systems. Feinberg acknowledged that these systems can be influential in the delivery of care today, and providers should make every effort to incorporate the tools as appropriate.

You hear people saying, 'If we measure it, it will improve,' but you have to do something with what you measure. You can't assume that just because you measure it, [that] will encourage better behavior.

Dan Feinberg,
professor, Northeastern University

Hospitals and independent practitioners are at very different stages of preparedness when it comes to transitioning to accountable care, which may be another sign of differing opinions of analytics. Miles Snowden, M.D., chief medical officer at OptumHealth, released data at the event from a survey his organization conducted in collaboration with Harris Interactive. The results showed hospitals are more optimistic than primary care physicians about the transition to coordinated care. About 18% of hospitals said they are not prepared to take on greater financial accountability for the health of their patients, while 60% of physicians felt unprepared.

"One of the consistent themes I'm seeing is a lack of understanding of what it's going to take to be accountable for the clinical and financial outcomes of people who are not engaged in the health care system," Snowden said.

This may be due to the fact that hospitals are more likely to have staff in place to manage the transition, Snowden said. But he added hospitals generally have stronger IT infrastructures in place, which may include the robust analytic systems needed to spot patients who are most likely to require intensive care and identify treatment methods that deliver the most efficient care.

The flip-side of this is that physicians may lack the health data analytic tools necessary to deal with the transition away from fee-for-service. This may put these smaller practices at a competitive disadvantage to larger provider organizations in the near future.

Andy Finnegan, health insurance specialist at the Boston Regional Office of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said federal insurance programs aren't likely to continue paying into fee-for-service models for much longer.

The increasing amounts of data being produced by electronic health records and the growing capacity to crunch those numbers will enable Medicare and Medicaid to identify treatment approaches that are working, and reward physicians who use them, Finnegan said. Doctors who have their own analytic capabilities will be able to measure their own progress toward improving safety and efficiency and ensure that they will continue to receive reimbursements.

The push toward coordinated care models may continue to place emphasis on adopting analytic systems, but Jane Cardoso, health care solutions manager at Boise, Idaho.-based WhiteCloud Analytics, said not all physicians are as eager to implement analytics systems. Some are more engaged than others. When a practice decides to adopt a system, it is important to identify those who are eager to engage with new systems and help other doctors get on board with the technology.

Organizations also need to understand how a data analytics system fits in with their existing priorities. Once physicians see that data analytics programs can support these goals, they may be more likely to embrace the technology, Cardoso said.

She added, with the health care system increasingly moving toward value-based purchasing, the need for analytics has never been greater. In a connected future where value is paramount, the ability to analyze data and identify what works will be critical.

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

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