From The Editor | May 1, 2013

Obamacare's Big Data Opportunity

ken congdon

By Ken Congdon


By Ken Congdon, Editor In Chief,
Follow Me On Twitter @KenOnHIT

There isn’t much middle ground with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare. Most healthcare providers are either staunch supporters of the legislation, or they despise it. However, no matter what side of the fence you fall on regarding ACA, one thing is certain — ACA is here to stay and it will impact healthcare providers in many ways.

According to Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of Health Data Consortium, ACA is having a significant impact on the way healthcare providers look at health data. “With the passing of ACA, healthcare organizations all over the country are very anxious about health data,” he says. “They are scrambling to understand how to leverage data not only to comply with ACA, but also to do comparative analytics to improve their performance in a new healthcare environment focused on accountability and evidence-based outcomes. As a result, providers are beginning to view health data as an essential ingredient in reshaping the U.S. healthcare system.”

While awareness surrounding the importance of health data is on the rise, Spradlin emphasizes that the healthcare industry still has a ton of work to do from an infrastructure standpoint. “When it comes to establishing an electronic data infrastructure, the healthcare industry basically needs to squeeze the advancements that have been made in other industries over the past two decades in a five-year time window,” he says.

Spradlin makes the inevitable comparison between the healthcare and financial industries. He states that most people take the global financial services infrastructure that is in place today for granted. Spradlin contends that this network that allows a U.S. citizen to withdraw money from an ATM in the Middle East (and track this activity) requires more than just technology, but a fabric of worldwide laws, regulations, international accounting standards, and network-to-network security protocols. While Spradlin agrees that there are operational and data complexities in healthcare that are very different from those in finance and other markets, he contends that a similar technology and regulatory infrastructure needs to be built to manage the flow of health data.

The good news, according to Spradlin, is that healthcare can largely borrow from the work already done in these other industries. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many industries were involved in a data warehousing movement where they simply collected large amounts of data to run basic reports. Many of these initiatives were fruitless. It was only more recently that most industries realized the power of business intelligence, data analytics, and business insight.

“It turns out that the real value is not in the data itself, but the insight and intelligence that is applied to this data that allows organizations to make better decisions and apply resources more efficiently,” says Spradlin. “Other industries wasted a lot of time and energy to arrive at this conclusion. Healthcare has the opportunity to make a quantum leap by understanding the relationship between data and business insight from the outset and building the infrastructure accordingly.”

Moreover, Spradlin believes ACA itself offers healthcare providers an opportunity to drive change with regards to health data. “Even if you are opposed to ACA, I believe a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he says. “If you are in a leadership role at a hospital, ACA provides you with more air cover than ever before to make the investments needed to manage health data effectively — in a way that is both fact and insight driven.”

A Health Data Evolution Requires Understanding & Resources

So, how can healthcare providers make the most of the golden data opportunity offered by ACA? According to Spradlin, there are a few key steps to take. First, providers need to fully understand the ACA legislation. You need to understand what type of reporting is necessary to fully comply and participate in the system. Spradlin also argues that a thorough understanding of Meaningful Use is a must. Second, healthcare providers need to determine the questions they need to ask and the insights they need to gain around their data to improve their performance and effectiveness. For many, this will require investing in people with the experience necessary to translate business needs into data and technology needs. Spradlin believes these human resources will be at a premium over the next five years and this dearth of talent could be one of the biggest challenges encountered in overhauling health data systems.     

This is where Health Data Consortium is looking to play a bigger role. In the past, Health Data Consortium has primarily positioned itself as an educator in the world of health data, and the organization will continue its mission to increase health data awareness next month with Health Datapalooza IV, an annual conference dedicated to featuring the newest and most effective uses of health data by providers, academics, government agencies, and individuals. Spradlin stresses that this year’s event, in particular, will place a stronger emphasis on how ACA will affect healthcare providers. However, Health Data Consortium is looking to expand its influence beyond education and awareness to become an active player in actually changing the health data ecosystem. For example, the organization is increasing its membership base and is creating programs that will help healthcare providers score their health data progress.

“We want to be a partner to all players in healthcare,” says Spradlin. “We want healthcare providers, vendors, government agencies, and other organizations to join us in an effort to evolve health data in this country. Together, we can take years off the time it takes for our industry to fully leverage the valuable resource of health data.”