Unlocking the data needed to drive population health efforts

‘Population Health is really about treating one patient at a time effectively and well.’- overheard at HIMSS 2017 in Orlando.  

Though this concept sounds simple, it is extremely challenging due to the complexity in transforming data into actionable insights. We must identify dependable and timely data sources, establish data pipelines and convert the data to information that can be easily utilized to drive insights and decision-making.  One of the most important sources of data in healthcare is the electronic health record (EHR) system – as this contains the real world evidence that is so critical to population health. 

The data locked in EHRs has the potential to improve public health reporting, allowing for better monitoring, prevention and management of disease.  This information can help physicians improve quality of care and patient outcomes by leveraging real world evidence gleaned from EHRs.  Accessing this data can help the community transition to a proactive model of health and prevention grounded in data pertinent to identifying trends and actionable insights not from just a single individual, but from many patients across a variety of care settings.

Unfortunately, getting to this data is a real challenge, hence the importance of driving interoperability initiatives in the HIT community.  Population health solutions rely on data from a number of sources, including multiple types of EHRs with different technical variations, including varied data models, underlying architectures, and interface requirements. This has created a virtual Tower of Babel that consists of data exchange standards, imaging meta-data, transaction oriented tagging protocols and virtual handshakes.  The level of effort to connect, process, harmonize and verify data extracted from EHRs can be extensive and expensive. The result in the real healthcare world, for example, is a cancer patient literally having to print their records at their oncology practice to take them to the hospital across the street.

Fortunately, population health professionals are a determined bunch – searching for a standardized, systematic and efficient method to collect EHR data.  Today, they are leveraging HL-7, Consolidated CDAs, ASC X12 protocols, IHE standards, ISO Data Quality Standards and standard and proprietary web services, among others, to move data from the EHR to platforms that support population health initiatives.  However, interoperability issues must be solved at the individual practice level for healthcare to fully benefit from population health initiatives.

Unlocking the value of data contained in the EHR is not an insurmountable task – but as a community we have to work together to accelerate the identification and implementation of data exchange standards and related technologies.  Getting data into the hands of those in the healthcare community striving to improve care and ensure data is turned into information to deliver the right treatment at the right time for the right patient is not a technology issue, but an industry challenge that we must meet and overcome together.

About the Author: As COO of CancerLinQ, Rich intersects business value, HIT and the company’s mission of enhancing and improving the treatment of cancer. Rich has led successful initiatives for organizations including The Joslin Diabetes Center, The National Institutes of Health, the VA, Genzyme, Novartis, Discovery Communications and ESPN.