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Healthcare business intelligence systems: an IT laggard no more?

Learn about the status of healthcare business intelligence systems and the potential benefits of healthcare BI tools in supporting clinical intelligence and other analytics uses.

Business intelligence (BI) software can provide healthcare organizations with valuable insights for analyzing and improving patient care and better controlling costs. But there are unique challenges to deploying and managing healthcare BI systems. In this opening chapter of our special report on healthcare BI, consultant Lou Agosta discusses the current state of BI systems in the healthcare industry and provides an overview of healthcare BI’s potential benefits.

Table of Contents

Healthcare business intelligence systems: an IT laggard no more?
Healthcare BI software in action: real-world examples, best practices
Business intelligence project management tips for a healthcare BI team
Key IT roles on healthcare business intelligence project teams

The medical technology used in the U.S. is clearly among the most advanced in the world. However, that refers to hospital operating facilities and equipment such as imaging machines and laparoscopic surgical devices. The same can’t always be said for the information technology that has been deployed in healthcare organizations, including their business intelligence (BI) systems.

For example, unlike in such industries as finance, retail and consumer packaged goods, where adoption rates for data warehousing technology can reach upwards of 80%, most hospitals and large physician practices haven’t made investing in BI infrastructures a priority. Perhaps 20% of healthcare providers have implemented data warehouses and BI software to support clinical decision-making, pay-for-performance (P4P) programs and comparative effectiveness research (CER) and to track clinical outcomes as part of healthcare quality measurement initiatives.

The fact that healthcare has been a lagging adopter of BI tools, and IT in general, is a “bad news, good news” type of thing. Obviously, the bad news is that healthcare BI adoption has been lagging. The good news is that in IT, laggards often have an opportunity to leapfrog ahead of earlier adopters, using the latest technology and system architectures to position themselves for competitive advantages as well as cost reductions and incremental revenue growth. In short, there is potential for healthcare organizations that are playing catch-up on BI to profit greatly from the technology, if they’re able to learn from the best practices – and mistakes – of those who have gone before them.

Healthcare business intelligence turns BI into ‘clinical intelligence’
BI is penetrating the healthcare market from different and diverse directions. And in the process, it is being transformed from traditional notions of “business intelligence” into “clinical intelligence.” For example, one of the classic BI questions asks what customers are buying what products at what prices, and when and where. As BI software migrates into healthcare settings, the clinical intelligence version of that question becomes what treatments are most effective for which patients with what diagnosis and at what cost. Some of that information is captured as part of P4P and CER initiatives, but the process of collecting and analyzing it can’t all be driven off of an electronic health records (EHR) system. Such systems are designed to optimize medical operations, not to support a flurry of user inquiries requiring data aggregation. The data warehouse and BI tools were invented precisely to address such workloads.

Similarly, operational BI applications that can make a business difference in the retail industry include the use of analytics to find information that can help companies influence shopping behavior through cross-selling and up-selling. Now switch to healthcare. No sane medical provider is trying to cross-sell or up-sell triple-bypass heart surgery to patients. But getting inside the heads of patients to influence their behavior is still relevant – just with a different spin. In healthcare, we have programs to incent healthy behavior – efforts to get people to stop smoking, eat a more healthy diet, exercise regularly and so on. We can expect to see more of this, and BI and analytics tools clearly have a role to play in helping healthcare organizations to track the success of such programs, assess what works and what doesn’t, and improve how they’re “sold” to potential participants.

The customer relationship management (CRM) revolution of the late 1990s was spawned along with BI, and the combination of those technologies popularized the idea of a 360-degree view of the customer in retail, finance and other sales and services industries (although in practice, the view rarely surpassed 180 degrees). We now need a 360-degree view of the healthcare patient, with the ability to analyze all of that information. It also makes sense to pursue a similar view of doctors and other healthcare professionals, aggregating data about their encounters with patients en masse so it also can be examined with BI and analytics tools.

Potential benefits of healthcare business intelligence for patients, providers
The potential benefits of increased data analysis efforts to patients are clear: faster diagnoses and more targeted treatments. Healthcare trends across groups of patients can become more visible, benefiting the health of the community at large via the early identification of new and emerging diseases such as H1N1. In addition, healthcare providers can use BI findings to implement clinical best practices and head off medical errors before they threaten the careers of doctors and the reputations of hospitals.

Of course, organizations that are looking to make meaningful use of healthcare BI technologies have multiple issues to contend with. Many healthcare providers face the challenge of simultaneously having to upgrade their EHR systems to address looming government mandates while they work to add BI software to help them manage business and clinical operations. Islands of information are common and, in some cases, still proliferating. Healthcare organizations frequently continue to make do with legacy systems, green-screen applications and client-server architectures from the early 1990s.

The risk of missteps on business intelligence in healthcare extends from building a data warehouse to data integration to ensuring compliance with security and regulatory standards – and last but not least, to implementing specific BI applications. Each of those tasks represents an IT challenge – but also an opportunity for those healthcare providers that are ready to take their BI efforts up a level. This is one case in which the famous French saying (as translated into English) is entirely appropriate: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lou Agosta

About the author: Lou Agosta, Ph.D., is an independent industry analyst specializing in data warehousing, data quality, data mining, business intelligence and healthcare IT. Keyword: data. Agosta's book, The Essential Guide to Data Warehousing, was published by Prentice Hall PTR. He can be reached at

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