Health Care: How to Create a Data-Driven Mindset and Skills

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Click to learn more about author Helena Schwenk.

Health care organizations across the world are in varying stages of maturity when it comes to data and working with their data assets. Sure, they all store and manage their data in some way, but in 2021, I hope forward-thinking organizations are addressing the key questions. What’s the best way to manage our data? Where do we best store it? How do we extract the most value from our data?

previously wrote about Data Quality, storage, and security challenges faced by health care providers, and how to address them. Here, I want to focus on the next steps in the data value chain: how to create visible insights, extract value that can be shared across the organization, and make these insights widely available to empower everyone to make data-driven decisions.

Use Data Analytics to Look Forward in Health Care

Data analytics covers a broad spectrum of approaches and outputs, which means that there can be significant variety in the value organizations extract from their data. At the very basic level, most health care organizations keep track of several data points that let them compile their KPIs and measure past performance. This is important information to assess the retrospective, but there are limitations in how far such analysis can take an organization.

Additional analysis should involve predictions and forecasts. These often exist in financial departments, but smaller organizations especially do not push beyond that. Predictive analytics can enable health care organizations to move from reacting to seasonal influences, policy decisions, and societal trends, to becoming an influencing force in shaping these developments based on data – with the ultimate goal of achieving health and well-being for everyone.

Communicate Clearly

The results of data analysis, regardless of the level of depth it goes to, must be communicated effectively to the right people. This is where data visualization and reporting come in as tools for sharing information. While modern business intelligence (BI) and analytics tools make it very easy to work with data, build interactive dashboards, and create reports, this alone does not result in useful, actionable information. Simply “showing” the numbers is not enough.

Analysts need to have a thorough understanding of the needs of their stakeholders and be able to communicate the findings in a way that the audience can understand and can gain value from. An open line of communication between those who work with data and those who use the data for decision-making is essential to building and growing a data-driven strategy.

Data visualization and reporting done right means that people have access to information they need, in a format they can use easily. They should also be able to provide feedback on the process to ensure ongoing improvement.

Always Look for the Next Step

This leads to another common challenge: striving for continuous improvement. While health care organizations may have reached a satisfying status quo when it comes to data, they need to find ways to optimize and improve their processes on an ongoing basis.

They also need to consider Data Literacy as part of this effort. Continuously upskilling their people is important for ensuring that data assets are used to their maximum effect. Whether through constructive feedback, open discussions, or the sharing of information and resources, are people and teams willing to learn and get better? And, if this is a struggle, how can this challenge be addressed? For a few ideas, read my articles on building data and analytics communities. 

The Risk of Poor Data: A Matter of Trust

Ultimately, working with low-quality health care data can lead to a range of problems that impact everything from delays and patient mistreatment to inefficient and inconsistent procedures, which can create bottlenecks and poor or ineffective decision-making. 

Arguably most significant is the erosion of trust in the data. A recent report on Data Governance in health care suggests that more than half of CIOs in the sector lack confidence in their data. This negativity filters down through the organization, manifesting itself in employee frustration and human intervention. Ironically, this fall-back to manual reporting and analysis often increases the likelihood of error and further prevents the effective collection of accurate, valuable data.

Keeping Secure

The other risk is, of course, security. Health care organizations face an uphill battle keeping vast amounts of regularly changing data secure, up to date, and accessible. It’s no wonder that the health care industry is one of the sectors most affected by data breaches. In 2019 alone, 41.2 million health care records were exposed, stolen, or illegally disclosed through 505 data security incidents. According to IBM, the average cost of a single breach in the health care sector is $6.45 million – compared to a cross-industry average of $3.92 million.

Health care organizations need to find a middle ground between strengthening data security mechanisms at the expense of Data Quality processes.

How Data Is Making an Impact in Health Care

There’s no doubt that data and analytics still pose challenges for the health care industry, just like in other sectors. There are, however, exciting opportunities available when organizations embrace the challenges and address them with the power of good people, high-quality processes, and robust technological solutions. 

For example, our non-profit partner Operation Fistula uses data to support clinicians that fall outside the reach of traditional funding. Instead of clinics and health care professionals going through lengthy and complex fundraising processes to help patients, Operation Fistula works directly with surgeons, providing them with funding in exchange for data that tracks their performance, and verifies their treatment of women suffering with obstetric fistula. In this way, Operation Fistula is able to incentivize treatment, reward surgical performance, and both enable and support effective treatment. Surgeons that participate in this program use this performance-based funding to increase the number of women they can help by successfully performing surgical treatment for fistula. 

The team at Operation Fistula works with clinicians across Madagascar and other countries. Among them is Dr. Fidèle. Over the course of his 30-year surgical career, Dr. Fidèle had treated 63 women with obstetric fistula. That’s around two fistula patients per year. Dr. Fidèle’s surgical output was limited because he couldn’t access funding – he funded this patient care out of his own pocket. With Operation Fistula’s data-driven funding, Dr. Fidèle’s clinical capacity was transformed. He was able to treat 75 women in his first year in the program, and over the six years he’s been working with Operation Fistula, he’s become one of the top fistula surgeons in Madagascar. 

So, data does make a difference! In this case, helping Operation Fistula and its partner surgeons to transform the lives of women needlessly suffering with this debilitating injury. 

What Lessons Can You Take into Your Work with Data?

I’ve outlined challenges and proposed solutions in this article and want to encourage you to take a few realistic steps that help you, your colleagues, and your stakeholders gain more value from the data in your organization.

You can start small with actions like bringing together analysts and frontline staff to start conversations about Data Quality and how both sides can support each other to improve it.

Another step could be to review the existing analytics tools in use and how suitable they are for the people doing the work. Maybe all that’s needed to help your analysts make the most of the software they use is to provide them with additional training to support their learning.

There are different paths for achieving a better return from the investment in your data assets and in these turbulent times health care providers are grappling with numerous challenges at once. It is, however, also a good time to focus on data and the benefits you can achieve when you unlock all of its potential.

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