Healthcare Needs Data Analysts Who Are Problem Solvers

Healthcare needs problem solvers more than it needs number crunchers. This advice for those interested in data analytics/big data careers comes from James Gaston, senior director, Healthcare Advisory Services Group, HIMSS Analytics.

“One the best things you can do is not sit in your office and crunch numbers all day,” he advised. “Find ways to support patient care and operational areas. What are their analytics problems and how can you help them solve them? Meet the champions of analytics in your organization.”

He recalled a physician he assisted who was passionate about medication dosage research and developing tools to help his team better understand how to calculate proper dosages for their pediatric patients. “That allowed me to meet other physicians and see how they were using analytics in the patient care setting,” he explained.

Gaston also worked in an operating room to figure out how to order and inventory supplies more efficiently. “Getting involved in those things is how you advance your career because then you're beginning to understand how a hospital works as a business and in providing patient care,” he said.

Analysts play integral role in shift toward data-driven decision-making
Healthcare data analysts today can play integral roles as healthcare clinical and business decision-makers shift from using experience and intuition only to applying data-driven insights. “All of a sudden, everyone can contribute to the decision-making process,” Gaston stated. “To me, that's exciting. You don't have to spend 20 years in a field to be qualified to have an opinion anymore. Now, you can be a part of the team and help make good decisions by observing,  collecting and analyzing data, and understanding what's going on.”

A number of different college degrees can help one gain entree into healthcare data analytics – computer science or engineering, data science, healthcare administration, health sciences, math and more. “While a degree is helpful at getting your foot in the door” Gaston said. “it's really about understanding the healthcare processes and how healthcare works, and then being able to apply analytical skills,” he explained.

Healthcare organizations collect tremendous amounts of data, and the challenge now is putting it to use to improve both clinical and operational processes – “advancing patient care, helping your hospital perform better, making sure that purchasing is buying the right stuff and it's being delivered at the right time, ensuring that staffing levels are optimized and we have the right number of nurses in an ICU based on the patient census and the acuity of the patients, and so on,” Gaston explained.

Wherever there is data, there is opportunity
Organizations, both inside and outside of healthcare, see opportunity in data availability. While hospitals grapple with challenges relating to mobile health, cybersecurity and privacy, and more, companies like Apple and Google – as well as many start-ups – see opportunity in a sector that comprises 20 percent of the American economy.
“Apple plans to launch an electronic medical record that resides on your iPhone and Google plans to manage EMRs (electronic medical records) and to create an EMR repository but keep it separate from Google search so it can't be exploited,” Gaston explained. “There are tremendous opportunities in start-ups that are launching applications and tools that process genome sequencing, lab results, fitness tracker data, and more. And there's still plenty of work to do in your traditional healthcare organizations.”

HIMSS resources helpful to data analysts in early stage of their careers
The HIMSS Clinical and Business Intelligence (C&BI) Committee has developed various resources that will provide data analysts in the early stage of their careers insight into what healthcare organizations need. An Operating Model, Staffing, and Skills Guidance for Analytic Maturity, by Jeff Fuller, executive director of analytical solutions, enterprise analytics and data sciences, UNC Health Care System, addresses the staffing, skills, and operational models needed for a successful analytics program. “Having a properly organized, skilled, and well-supported analytics labor force is essential for this transition from simple reactive reporting to advanced proactive analysis and ongoing improvement,” Fuller wrote.

In addition, the HIMSS C&BI Community webinar series explores how data and analytics can be used to further various healthcare initiatives, such as population health, value-based payments, patient-centered care, data-driven decision-making, and more. Each webinar has an “ask the expert” question-and answer session with the speaker. “Many of those contain good snippets on skills and staffing requirements for analytics,” said Shelley Price, director, payer and life sciences, HIMSS North America.

HIMSS is also offering an “Introduction to Health Care Data Analytics” course to help professionals acquire in-demand skills. The online course is self-paced, including approximately 25 hours of learning and optional interaction with HIMSS facilitators and other participants through discussion forums. Four cohorts of this course are being offered July 2017, October 2017, January 2018 and April 2018. Participants will earn 20 CEs upon course completion. Registration will open for the October 2017 course soon.

Gaston also recommended the book Careers in Health Information Technology by Brian T. Malec, Ph.D., Springer Publishing, which covers 75 different kinds of health IT jobs, including those relating to data analytics. “All healthcare organizations have come to the realization they can't ignore data and analytics anymore,” Gaston stated. “If they want to make the best decisions consistently, they need analytics and big data.”

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