Connecting health care’s data dots

Getting past the “same, but different” dilemma

EKG and stethoscope in a binary environment
Gino Crescoli (CC0)

The health care industry has spent the better part of the last decade focused on automating processes. Not surprisingly, the industry now faces a familiar dilemma: disparate systems with similar, yet different data. Back-end and clinical systems are unable to talk to each other, and when they do, they aren’t speaking the same language because the data doesn’t necessarily match. This isn’t surprising given that different systems look at data differently—most were originally intended to operate separately.

As health care pushes to become a data-driven industry, it must use all of the data from its various systems to make improvements in every area: cost reduction, performance, efficiency, and, above all else, patient care. This will require health care CIOs to lead the industry in integrating systems to drive even greater value from the data. If data remains locked in silos, the industry will hit a ceiling in terms of achieving its goals.

Consider, for example, calculating the total cost of care, an increasingly important industry measurement.

Electronic health records (EHRs) play an important role in determining the cost of care.  During the past decade, EHRs were one of the most significant technology investments made across the industry. The implementation of EHRs was a $28 billion business in 2016, and it is forecast to grow to $36.6 billion by 2021.

Moving EHRs beyond the status quo

The expectation is that EHRs will help enable the industry to deliver patient care more effectively and efficiently. The data recorded in EHRs can be used for in-depth outcomes analysis and adverse event reporting. It can also help improve revenue growth by ensuring that organizations record complete and accurate information on chargeable items.

EHRs on their own do a fine job automating patient records but fall far short of their intended bigger picture value because the information in the record is limited in quality and scope. This is not a design flaw but exemplifies the challenge you face when you allow your systems to remain in silos.

If you look at the type of information EHRs record, it includes:

  • Care episode. What was done? Who was involved? What was the outcome?
  • Location costs. Where was the procedure or test performed?
  • Labor costs. Which surgeons, nurses, and technicians performed specific procedures and tests?
  • Supply costs. What was used? What was the total cost of these items?

EHRs do a more than adequate job of recording a procedure, staff involved, the results, and where the procedure took place. However, accounting for products used during a procedure is a much more challenging task. More often than not, bedside and procedural documentation for supplies remains a time-consuming, largely manual process. 

What results is a domino effect throughout the provider organization. The shortcomings in collecting and integrating product data at the point of care affect every other system.

To illustrate, a clinician may add a product by name or scan a product barcode at the point of care through the EHR, only to discover the system doesn’t recognize the data. Not only do clinicians waste time manually inputting product data, but also the result is often incorrect, incomplete, or missing information. At this point, technology should be knocking down obstacles to efficiency, not creating new areas for inefficiency and errors.

EHRs and supply data don’t have to be stumbling blocks to better outcomes. Hospital EHRs are typically integrated with the item master to allow clinicians to look up and record products during the course of patient care. But, there’s a limit. Most items masters only contain products that are routinely purchased, not the 300,000 to 400,000 clinical items that might be used during the course of a day. Expanding the size of the item master to include every clinical item would make the item master unwieldy, and very expensive to manage. In addition, different systems—clinical, supply chain and revenue—require different data so expanding the item master would compound the data issues already giving providers a headache.

Driving interoperability will improve efficiency and patient outcomes

Health care CIOs can help their organizations tap the value of all this data by removing the silos between clinical, financial, and supply chain systems. They must lead the effort to clean and standardize a variety of data to ensure that there can be true interoperability between systems. When supply chain, clinical, and financial teams have access to each other’s data, it simplifies the process of improving care, eliminates waste, and cuts spending. Virtual, cloud-based clinical item masters have emerged to serve as a single source of truth for clinical products, and the point of interoperability with other hospital systems.

Imagine the power when we connect EHR, supply chain, and finance systems. Health care clinicians can more easily and quickly document product use at the point of care. Integrated, accurate data helps ensure that providers have complete information on chargeable items, driving individual health system revenue. Technology can be a key asset in helping to improve patient safety through better recall management and adverse event reporting. And, these technology capabilities can drive more research opportunities among health institutions—all to further the industry’s mission to drive out waste, increase efficiency, and improve patient outcomes.

Integrated systems will also be critical as the industry increasingly relies on mobile devices in the delivery of care. As care moves beyond the hospital walls, mobile devices used to collect and track critical information can be tied to product and supply information. Mobilizing clinicians and administrators in this way will only work if information previously siloed in core systems is available in real time.

This shift to fully integrated systems can’t, and won’t, happen overnight, but CIOs in health care can no longer ignore the call to challenge their organizations regarding the use of technology. If the industry wants to accurately account for the total cost of care, and use data for performance and outcomes analysis, it must become data-driven. CIOs will be the driving force in helping to ensure the systems supporting every aspect of care are connected and able to share timely and accurate data. Connecting the industry’s disparate systems is critical to make data work for us all.

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