BEYENETWORK ARTICLE

Building a Truly Great Healthcare Business Intelligence Application

Scott Wanless

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK

With the increased pressure to perform, to do it more cost-effectively and to comply with the ever-growing number of regulatory and public

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reporting requirements, it is easy for healthcare organizations to get caught up in the problems of the day. It is equally easy for the people in those organizations to become mired in the details of budget constraints, project planning challenges and political battles.

Once in a while, it would be nice to raise our sights from all of that and hitch our efforts to a truly important mission. If you are in the business intelligence field, or make use of analytical information in your job, doing so could lead to building a truly great business intelligence application. However, it is necessary to take a few important steps before you create a single project plan, assign a single developer or buy a single software tool.

Healthcare organizations, and in particular healthcare providers, have an advantage over organizations in most other industries when it comes to finding such an important organizational mission and an equally important mission for their business intelligence efforts. This is because the word “care” is part of the name of the industry, and providing an emotional as well as a rational business service is a part of the industry’s reason for being.

In my experience, there are four steps that one must take to identify and build such a purposeful analytical application. This article details those steps.

Step 1: Compelling Business Intelligence Mission

By nature, I am something of an idealist and a student of history, so I have collected a number of powerful, single-phrase mission statements. Here are a few examples:

• Create the State of Israel (Golda Meir)
• Provide unlimited opportunity for women (Mary Kay Ash)
• Build a modern Egypt (Anwar Sadat)
• Survival of the British people (Winston Churchill during World War II)
• Live free or die (New Hampshire state motto)
• Climb the highest point in all fifty states (one of my college roommates)

Each of these is rich in possibilities for guiding the development of a business intelligence application. One statement, however, stands above the rest:

• Help the poorest of the poor (Mother Teresa)

The reason this mission stands out for analytical purposes is that every key word is loaded with business questions. Make no mistake, Mother Teresa meant business when she was ministering to the poorest of the poor.

Much of this ministering was health-related. More importantly, her mission and the subsequent business questions have more similarities to the issues that healthcare organizations deal with than any other industry. It is pretty difficult to formulate an equivalent mission statement in the banking, retailing, telecommunications or automotive industries, for example. It is possible to come close, however (e.g., Harley-Davidson’s Ride Free).

Step 2: Compelling Business Intelligence Product

Many believe the product of a business intelligence application is information and interfaces for reporting and analysis. These are the output of the application and the delivery mechanism for that output, respectively, but they are not the product. The product of business intelligence analytical applications is to provide answers to business questions at the right level of the organization so people can make decisions. The business intelligence application is defined by the business questions it can answer.

Let’s take a look at some of the business questions that need answering in order to achieve the mission set forth by Mother Teresa. Doing so means parsing the mission statement and examining each word. We will do this in reverse order. I will explain why in a moment.

  • Poor. Who is meant by this? Poor nations? Poor businesses? Poor public organizations? No. Poor people. Who are these people? Where are they located? What defines “poor” and whose definition is it? How, when and why did they become poor? How many people fall within this definition?
  • Poorest. What defines poorest? Are there degrees of poverty, or are there categories of poor? Again, how many people fall within this definition? Where are they located?
  • Help. What kind of help? Who is going to provide this help? Where are the helpers located, and how do we get them and all of their supplies and equipment to the right place to help our target people? When can they be there to provide help? How long do they need to provide this help? Will it have a lasting effect, or are we simply concerned with providing episodic relief?

Asking these business questions up front using the individual words of our loaded mission statement allows us to properly identify the features of our business intelligence application. This is by no means a comprehensive list of questions (or the sub-questions each one contains), but it is a pretty good starter list.

Asking these questions in reverse order helps us to define the “customer” first, the service second and the delivery of the service third. This sequence is much less wasteful than answering these questions the other way around.

The product of our business intelligence application is information to answer these questions. These answers, however, have no value unless we act on them.

Step 3: Compelling Uses for the Business Intelligence Application

Decisions must be acted upon (or purposefully declined), or they are a waste of analytical energy. We have our mission, and we have the product that gives us the ability to answer key analytical questions. The next step is to define the downstream actions enabled by this information. This step is essential to truly understanding what information is required of our analytical product.

Some examples of the downstream uses for the information include:

  • Identifying and prioritizing target populations to help.
  • Identifying providers of the required help, the required supplies and the required equipment.
  • Getting money to support the relief efforts.
  • Logistical considerations such as scheduling staff, moving the providers and materials to the right place at the right time, etc.
  • Compliance issues in the nations and states you are entering, the nations/states you are pulling providers from, the nations/states you are crossing, etc.
  • Performance measurement such as the impact you are making; the cost-effectiveness of the relief; the cost and efficiency of the movement of providers, supplies and materials; and so forth.

If you look over this list, you are likely to find that it mirrors your decisions or the decisions made by healthcare providers worldwide.

Step 4: Compelling Return on Investment

The next question you must resolve when developing a business intelligence application is getting a return on your investment. This is universally true, even for mission-based or purely altruistic endeavors such as our fictional application serving the work of Mother Teresa.

Following this example of using our data to help the poorest of the poor, we are likely to find that there doesn’t seem to be much commercial value in building the application. After all, the “customers” we are serving are, by definition, unable to purchase our services. The more successful we are at identifying and reaching the poorest of the poor, the more likely this is to be true.

So how do we get a payback on the business intelligence application? The answer to this question is the same one that Mother Teresa solved during her lifetime for any other investment that she made. Plus, it is probably an issue that your organization deals with constantly, especially if it is a public organization or a faith-based organization.

Some potential returns on our investment include increased donations, increased achievement of a non-financial mission, increased engagement of members, and so forth. One interesting benefit measure is the “all boats lift” measure. If you target and raise the lowest level (e.g., the poorest of the poor), then all of the boats lift as well.

Perhaps the best measure of success, and the one that business intelligence supports the best, is the “pay-it-forward” benefit. If you lift a poor person from his plight and help him in a lasting way, then he can help another person who, in turn, can help another and another. This causes cumulative growth in the impact of your efforts. We have seen this in healthcare with the cumulative growth in support groups for chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and asthma.

Plus, this is a benefit that business intelligence both supports and is supported by. Business intelligence supports this benefit by providing information on trends on the impact of the help, patterns in the provision of this help, and efficiency in the operational aspects of the efforts. Business intelligence is supported by this benefit in that the application becomes mission-critical to the efforts and therefore receives more attention, more funding and more growth opportunities.

And all of this from a six-word mission statement.

Next Steps

We could all go back to the daily grind of supporting the business intelligence applications we have in place today or fretting over our project plans, scope statements and development budgets. No one would deny that there is plenty of work to do just to keep up with the oppressive demands on the healthcare organizations in which we work.

Or we can lift our eyes for a moment from our screens, from the stacks of paper or the overlapping sticky notes on our desks and wonder: What would be a truly great application for our organization? What information applied to the right business questions, in service to the right mission, would make us an industry beacon? Make us a world-class organization? Make us different, better, brighter?

That is the moment when you know that using the data you already own is one of the best investments of time, money and effort that you and your organization could possibly make.

Thanks for reading!


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