The Evolution of Data in Healthcare

Nancy Ham

In recent years, we’ve seen a sizable shift toward a data-driven healthcare system, but we still have some distance to go before it becomes the norm. Providers are beginning to decipher how to efficiently leverage the right data sets — and technologists are still in the process of building systems capable of sharing that data across the entire healthcare network in a meaningful way. Once we reach that point, everyone in the industry will be able to make more informed decisions regarding patient care, thereby improving patient outcomes, reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

Data collection isn’t all that new in healthcare; however, we’ve historically shied away from using our data for anything outside of the treatment room. Until recently, there wasn’t technology for — nor a premium placed on — integrating and sharing data beyond a clinic’s walls. But that’s all changed within the last decade or so, as the healthcare industry has started harnessing the wider-reaching potential of the data we collect.

To incentivize meaningful use of patient data, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has paid more than $40 billion through programs such as Meaningful Use and the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) to providers who have adopted certified electronic health records (EHR) technology and established quality data reporting practices. This caused a swift adoption of EHRs but resulted in a data overload with minimal context or integration. We, essentially, developed islands of electronic data that lacked common organizational structure, which isn’t useful because their siloed nature hinders seamless data exchange and understanding among providers.

The more recent push toward interoperability — the development and adoption of technological systems and software capable of not only communicating with one another, but also seamlessly exchanging data and effectively using it — is starting to connect those islands, although it’s a work in progress. Interoperability is particularly important as we shift to a performance-based payment environment in which providers are reimbursed for demonstrating quality — rather than quantity — of care. True value-based care requires extensive use of data and greater collaboration among providers in order to make more informed decisions that improve operational efficiency, care delivery and outcomes.

Though the healthcare industry as a whole is still figuring out how to best cleanse, merge, read, analyze, share and act upon the massive amount of data at our disposal, there is good news: Providers and healthcare organizations are showing greater commitment to the larger-picture goal of achieving interoperability — and they’re beginning to harness outcomes data at scale to improve health for entire populations, thereby advancing the industry’s ability to foresee, prevent and treat illnesses and injuries.

To move forward in our data collection efforts, we need this level of technological readiness. The entire healthcare community must demand technology that not only makes data collection easy, but also seamlessly communicates and shares that data across all systems in the network. While challenges such as infrastructure limitations, cybersecurity and unknown integrity of fragmented data are still somewhat obstructing our path, this new focus on value-based care is exactly what the industry needs to overcome these hurdles. And when providers and patients alike advocate for the technology to propel the quality care movement forward, we’ll see significant improvement in IT systems that interconnect and bring true meaningful use to our data.

Nancy Ham is CEO of WebPT.

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