- Healthcare big data analytics is a booming business, which is both a good and a bad thing for providers seeking to bulk up their infrastructure to supplement their EHRs with sophisticated tools for clinical analytics, population health management, and predictive insights.
The number of up-and-coming big data vendors is growing every day as providers recognize the need to treat data as a resource instead of a burden, and picking a winner out of the pack isn’t always easy for healthcare organizations constrained by finances and concerned about developing long-term, effective partnerships.
If you understand your healthcare big data analytics technology options, are preparing to put your team into action, and are ready to move forward with a strategy to harness big data as a way to drive quality improvements and organizational efficiencies, it’s time to dive into the murky world of vendor selection.
HealthITAnalytics.com explores what to look for in a healthcare big data analytics vendor in order to ensure that a provider gets the right technology for its needs in the short term while keeping options open for shifting and changing strategic goals.
Matching what you have to what you want
As specialists trying to participate in the EHR Incentive Programs have learned to their cost, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to health IT initiatives. A large, well-known corporation may be able to boast about their brand recognition and have a client list a mile long, but not all healthcare organizations – or big data sets – are created equal.
Healthcare organizations must have a clear idea of what their data sets look like before they can match their needs and goals to a service provider. Those that have invested heavily in structuring their EHR input may wish to begin their big data programs with general clinical analytics, as many hospitals do. Others focused more on research, complex cases, or bolstering their clinical decision support might want to turn to companies that offer cognitive computing or natural language processing that can comb through bulky narrative text.
Providers must also examine their existing infrastructure and decide whether they can build upon technologies already in place, or if they would prefer to rip everything out and start again. Can the vendor accommodate your legacy systems? Do you need to invest in basic infrastructure like a data warehouse or master patient index in order to benefit from your potential vendor’s wares? What are the costs involved in bringing your infrastructure up to baseline, and how long will it take to see a satisfactory return on these investments?
The majority of healthcare organizations do not feel fully prepared to tackle these questions at the moment, but that is quickly changing as experience replaces trepidation. Healthcare big data analytics is a messy business at the best of times, but don’t let an overeager vendor trivialize how much work must be done in order to get the most out of a contract.
A commitment to interoperability and data standards
Vendors must treat interoperability as more than a buzzword these days as federal agencies, consumers, payers, and patients all crack down on data siloes that make big data analytics such a headache. After Congress raised questions about vendors who actively block the type of information sharing that is vital for care coordination and population health management and the ONC responded with a widely-read report on the matter, vendors have started to change their tune on interoperability.
The rise of interoperability coalitions like Carequality and the CommonWell Health Alliance may make it a little easier for healthcare providers to identify vendors who are committed to health information exchange, but even the combined might of both organizations does not include a majority of the big data analytics companies on the market.
It is up to healthcare providers to ask about the foundations of a vendor’s technologies and how they will interact with other products, providers, and partners. A few important questions to ask include:
• Is your product built on open standards or proprietary architecture? Does it accept APIs, and is anyone actively developing them?
• How easy will it be for my organization to participate in large-scale analytics or health information exchange with a state or local entity, my accountable care organization, public health departments, and research organizations?
• How will your product interface with my existing health IT systems? What sort of user experience can my clinicians and other staff expect?
• Have you considered the growing importance of medical device integration and the Internet of Things? How will your technology adapt to the need to integrate additional data sources as patient-generated health data becomes more critical to providing quality care?
Transparent business practices and pricing structures
Taking the pledge for interoperability is just one part of having sound business practices that will encourage long-term partnerships. While the ONC’s data blocking report may have reportedly spooked some vendors into dropping data exchange fees, the question of who has the rights to demand cash for patient data in motion and at rest has sparked some serious debates.
In 2013, the ONC released a guide for providers looking to negotiate EHR replacement contracts, urging them to pay attention to terms that would limit the transfer of patient information to a new system or cut off access to data during a dispute. The advice about contract negotiation applies equally to an EHR system or a big data technology, each of which can be licensed for use on an organization’s own technology or provided as a service in the cloud.
The ONC warns providers to pay close attention to liability language that may exonerate the vendor from any responsibility should patient harm arise from unexpected downtime, a privacy violation, or an error or omission in the data. “Developer contract language often includes indemnification language that shifts liability to you without regard to the cause of the problem or whose ‘acts or omissions’ may have given rise to the claim,” the guide says.
“You may want to negotiate with the EHR technology developer a mutual approach to indemnification that makes each party responsible for its own acts and omissions, so that each party is responsible for harm it caused or was in the best position to prevent,” the ONC suggests.
The guide also suggests courses of action for dispute resolution, intellectual property issues, warrantees, and confidentiality agreements. Most vendors are willing to negotiate these terms to some degree, but be wary of those who insist on an all-or-nothing approach. Before signing on the dotted line, providers should be sure they are clear about their expectations and responsibilities, as well as ensuring they understand the pricing structures for data storage and transfer without falling victim to hidden fees or sudden hikes in a payment plan.
A balance of track record and innovation
Healthcare big data analytics is all about discovering novel and ingenious ways to use information, but providers investing millions of dollars in new infrastructure want to be sure that they aren’t throwing money down the drain. Despite the general enthusiasm around embracing new ideas for analytics, executive leaders are still a relatively conservative bunch.
This year’s HIMSS Leadership Survey indicated a very high level of board room support for expanding innovative health IT and data analytics capabilities, yet more than a third of organizational leaders would prefer if that innovation had been tested at another organization first. Just 24 percent of respondents said that their executive leaders were “open to trying ‘bleeding edge’ technology,” which puts big data analytics purchasers in a quandary. After all, someone has to be the first one to try something new – and to possible reap the rewards of being adventurous.
But investing in start-up technology companies with big dreams and little real-world experience can be a risky proposition for providers who are looking to stretch every dollar they invest. Venture capital investment in population health management and analytics companies is through the roof, but not every outfit that receives funding gets bought by a major player or scores a huge IPO.
Healthcare organizations should look for vendors who have secured adequate funding for their products, have working, bug-free examples of their software or hardware to display, offer robust customer support services, have firm timelines and plans for implementation, and don’t make promises they seem unlikely to be able to keep.
The ability to expand and grow with you as strategic plans change
Healthcare organizations are constantly being bombarded with new initiatives, shifting goals for federal mandates, and major changes to health IT programs, reimbursement structures, and quality improvement goals. As the industry begins to embrace value-based payments and care structures driven by the need to provide high quality services and produce better outcomes, organizational needs and goals must be flexible.
Vendors have to be flexible, too, and be able to provide the right insights at the right time for the task at hand. While technology turnovers are inevitable as new capabilities and standards move through the market, healthcare providers are looking for products that can carry them through at least a few years of turmoil without requiring a complete overhaul.
Healthcare providers can help themselves make the right choices by having a solid strategic vision for their organization over the next three to five years as meaningful use winds down and accountable care heats up. Providers may wish to ask themselves:
- How will I tackle population health management and the increasingly expensive proposition of caring for patients with complex chronic disease needs? Will our patient demographics change significantly over the next few years? How can we be proactive about addressing their needs?
- How will the shift to value-based reimbursement drive the need for improved operational efficiencies within my organization, and how do I think big data will help?
- What data exchange and interoperability capabilities do I need to ensure care coordination across the continuum? How can my business partners and I work together to bring data-driven healthcare insights to our community?
- What patient safety and care quality goals are we hoping to meet? How can gaining deeper insights into our clinical care produce better patient outcomes?
- What revenue cycle management issues do we need to address? Can we turn patient behavior data into better collections, or will an investment in preventative care keep high-cost services to a minimum?
- How can we improve our data integrity and data governance to maximize our investment in healthcare big data analytics? Do we need to retrain our EHR users, hire more health information management professionals, or build a dedicated team of data scientists?
Healthcare big data analytics is such a rapidly expanding field that capabilities that seem commonplace today didn’t exist five years ago, and will probably be outdated five years from now. But understanding your organizational objectives will help you make the best possible decisions with the information available at the moment, and hopefully set up your big data program for long-term future success.
Choosing the right vendor is a critical component of seeing the benefits of big data, and providers should not underestimate the degree to which open communication during this type of ongoing partnership will be required.
After thoroughly considering how a technology purchase will impact their goals, providers should look for stable, responsible, capable, and innovative vendors that offer high quality products with transparent, reasonable pricing structures if they wish to be pioneers in the field of big data.