Guest Columns

Data equals understanding and requires integration

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LeRoy Boan
LeRoy Boan

“The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.” – Carly Fiorina

Data is a powerful tool. When used correctly the information obtained from IT systems can provide valuable insight and, in turn, guide strategic business decisions.

The benefits of big data are being realized throughout a number of industries. While the healthcare industry has been slow to adopt big data analytics initiatives, it is exciting to see the long-term care space is moving forward. For example, several state-specific programs are now underway to pull EHR data from long-term care facilities for geriatric analysis. Big data is being seamlessly aggregated from facilities state-wide and analyzed to uncover patterns, trends and other insight among geriatric patient populations. With information in hand, best practices can be developed to improve patient-centric care and reduce costs.

Capturing and analyzing the details of large population bases provides valuable insight into the long-term care industry that has not been seen before. Big data analytics provides the opportunity to change how residents are cared for today and into the future.

As one can imagine, big data analytics initiatives are a massive undertaking. In the healthcare industry, integration capabilities are required to enable data from disparate EHR systems to be pulled from participating facilities and aggregated into the analytics platform for analysis. Participation is also essential because, as with any study, the larger the population the more insightful the data becomes. Unfortunately, facility participation isn't always easy as integration issues and shortsightedness sometimes get in the way.

Roadblocks to success

Advances in technology are making it easier than ever to integrate disparate systems and analyze data. Yet some long-term care providers are too focused on what is happening within their facility that they are missing out on what's going on around them. These providers believe the value of health IT integration simply means connecting clinical software with financial software, and vice versa. While sharing information between these systems is important, the benefits are limited to only what is happening in-house. Without big-picture knowledge made possible through big data analytics initiatives (like state-wide geriatric analysis), providers will miss out on the potential for better, more cost-effective care and improved patient outcomes.

Cost concerns are another factor holding facilities back from participating in big data initiatives. Yes, a facility must pay to have integration capabilities developed (to allow their EHR system to integrate with other systems). However, in the long run this investment will save them money as the insight they gain through big data analytics will allow providers to make more informed business decisions. It will also lead to better care, which in turn will affect patients' happiness.  And the goal of any reputable facility is patients' health and happiness.

It is important to note that not all roadblocks are facility-driven; some are vendor related. Some of the larger health IT vendors who already have a big footprint in the market have demonstrated an unwillingness to integrate with competitors. There are also vendors that integrate only with preferred third-party providers. Preferred provider integration is popular because it is time consuming and expensive to design and implement interfaces that enable integration to occur. By focusing on only a handful of providers, larger vendors are able to keep integration costs down. However, in the long run these vendors run the risk of isolating themselves.

Meanwhile, other larger health IT vendors understand the value in working with competitors in the marketplace. These vendors have the forethought to see beyond what EHRs are being used for today. They understand that as long as information is being shared and data is brought together in a way that can be used by facilities to benefit the patient, it is a win-win situation for all.

Moving the industry forward

With greater education and awareness of the benefits of big data analytic initiatives, it is my hope that facilities will look beyond what is going on in-house and take part in this new trend. When they do, it is important that they partner with a vendor that is willing to invest in assets, time, and people to develop third-party connections. The industry must move away from a preferred provider model and be open to integration with every vendor.

Therefore, when considering an EHR system, integration should be a top priority for facilities.  This means looking for a vendor that has a proven history of delivering custom and unique ideas to allow for integration in a variety of situations. Equally as important, the vendor should have people in place with the technical expertise to aptly deliver the integration framework.

Integrating disparate health IT systems is not nearly as difficult as it used to be, thanks to advances in Health Level Seven (HL7) and the Continuity of Care Document (CCD). HL7 version 2 is the most widely accepted messaging standard for exchange of patient care and clinical information. This standardized language enables healthcare providers to send messages requesting and containing health data. The CCD specification is a healthcare standard EHRs will use to exchange data based on requirements outlined in meaningful use. These are just some of the standards that are helping to remove IT barriers. With the initial work underway, integration is easier than ever for vendors willing to devote the time and manpower to get it done. 

Depending on the EHR vendor, this process can be rather simple or time consuming and arduous.  Some EHR vendors may take upward of six months to complete the integration capabilities necessary for data from their EHR systems to feed into an analytics platform. Others can complete the task in a matter of just a couple of weeks. The key is finding a vendor that understands technology and has the technical expertise to craft an interface that easily connects disparate systems.

The long-term care space is rapidly changing and evolving. Big data analytics will play a key role in helping to shape the future of this space. However, only those providers with the foresight to look beyond what is going on in-house and take part in these exciting initiatives will benefit from the wealth of information that is yet to be uncovered.

LeRoy Boan ASN, CPHIT, MSIT, is a nursing and health IT expert at Cantata Health.

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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