A Healthy Dose of Innovation: How Analytics Are Transforming Healthcare

Medical symbol with technologyThe healthcare industry is no stranger to innovation. Medical breakthroughs, drugs and vaccines have eradicated diseases that ravaged previous generations. New technologies improve outcomes through early detection. Minimally invasive surgeries speed recovery and reduce hospital stays.

But, today, innovation in healthcare is taking a different form—namely, data analytics. It’s an innovation that not only enables organizations to thrive under the pay-for-value model ushered in by the Affordable Care Act, but one that can improve operations, quality of care, and diagnose disease at the genetic level.

“With the expansive adoption of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), the healthcare industry is gaining access to immense amounts of data,” explained Andrew Litt, M.D., Dell’s chief medical officer. “But, all of that data is useless without the analytic tools to transform it into actionable insight, the compute power to process the analysis quickly, and the networking tools to enable the appropriate clinicians, stakeholders and staff  to access this information in near-real time. And that’s where we, at Dell, are focusing our efforts.”

Analytics and High-Performance Computing Help Combat Pediatric Cancer

One good illustration of the impact of data analytics and high-performance computing on patient outcomes is evident in Dell’s support of the first FDA-approved personalized medicine clinical trial for pediatric cancer.

This project, conducted by the Neuroblastoma and Medulloblastoma Translational Research Consortium (NMTRC)  and  the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), centers around treatment for relapsed and refractory high-risk neuroblastoma, a fast-moving, often deadly form of this childhood cancer. Because this form of the cancer progresses quickly, doctors have little time to identify the best treatment.

In this trial, researchers map the genome of tumor cells from each patient. Then, with analytic tools and high-performance computing, they analyze this data to determine the specific mutations and related molecular pathways of the disease for each child. Physicians can then predict which combination of the 150-plus chemotherapy drugs (some of which have never been used in this disease before) will be the most effective treatment for each individual patient.

“Therapies that work well for some patients do not have the same results with others,” Dr. Litt explained. “If you have the power to quickly analyze the massive amount of data in a tumor genome, you can match treatments to the characteristics of that patient’s particular genotype. The researchers are testing whether this approach will lead to better outcomes and save their young patients from the discomfort and risk of treatments that have little chance of helping.

During the course of this trial, Dell worked with TGen researchers to develop a high-performance computing solution that sped data analysis, reducing the actual compute time from several days down to just a few hours. A secure, private cloud enables researchers located in geographically dispersed study sites to collaborate on treatment decisions using real-time access to the necessary data—instead of waiting for physical hard drives, sent via U.S. mail, as they had done in the past. In a fast-growing cancer like neuroblastoma, rapid analysis and instant access to results are essential to better care.

Based on the technologies created for this clinical trial, Dell developed a new high-performance computing solution that enables researchers speed up analysis of very large genomic data sets. . This innovation is not only focused on cancer but can be used to analyze other diseases impacted by the patient’s genes.

Through secure cloud technology, this clinical knowledge is more quickly disseminated and shared, accelerating treatment cycles and supporting greater collaboration among clinicians, researchers and other healthcare professionals.

The goal is saving lives while elevating quality of life for the victims of cancer and other genetic-related illness.

Process Improvements and More Effective Coordinated Care

But individual patients aren’t the only ones who can benefit from analysis of large data sets. Healthcare provider organizations, health plans and epidemiologists can use the massive amounts of clinical and business data that reside in their electronic warehouses to deepen their understanding of processes and populations.

“Like the genome of a cell, the business and clinical data of a hospital or health system hold clues to the how the systems function or fail to function,” Dr. Litt explained. “With the right data and analytic tools, physicians and hospital administrators can delve deep to find the root causes of clinical and business challenges.”

The evolution from fee-for-service reimbursements to risk-based contracting, like Affordable Care Organizations (ACOs) and similar practices, is driving many of these challenges. Success in this new environment requires proactive management of patients and sophisticated coordination between all care providers.

“Effective use of resources—targeting the right patients with the right interventions at the right time—can mean the difference between success and failure. And that takes comprehensive, integrated data and sophisticated analytic tools,” Dr. Litt explained. “Without these tools, the complexity of healthcare systems and the sheer volume of data they contain makes it difficult to identify the real issues impacting performance and outcome.”

More Effective Healthcare Marketing  

For health insurance plans, the Affordable Care Act is transforming health insurance from a largely business-to-business market to a business-to-consumer market. In addition to the state health insurance exchanges, where federally subsidized policies will be available to individuals and families, some employers are creating private exchanges where employees can purchase company-subsidized insurance from the health plan of their choice. Instead of marketing to businesses, health plans now must target individual consumers.

This transformation requires health plan providers to understand their customers in ways that go far beyond health data. Since they won’t be able to reject customers with pre-existing conditions, and because they will be competing on price as well as other factors, the new consumer markets will pose higher financial risk.  At the same time, health plans will need a more sophisticated way to manage healthcare delivery to those with chronic illnesses, to prevent expensive complications and hospitalizations.

In addition to working with high-risk patients to manage chronic conditions, plan providers need strategies to attract healthy customers to offset the treatment costs for the less-well.

Marketing to these populations will require the kind of consumer insight that retail companies have honed to a fine art. Health plans now need to accumulate and aggregate accurate data about the lifestyle habits, culture and buying preferences of this expanded customer base, using sophisticated analytic tools to figure out what all this new data means.

Making the World a Healthier Place

For public health officials and epidemiologists, the immense amount of data in EMRs across the country holds great promise for a better understanding of how diseases arise and spread through populations. And all that data has the potential to guide more effective prevention strategies.

In an age of information-driven healthcare, having access to the right data, the necessary analytic expertise and the right computing and networking resources will mean having the power to cure illnesses, improve clinical systems and thrive financially.

“Few organizations have the internal resources to accomplish that on their own. To get that combination of capabilities, you are going to need a technology partner with a deep understanding of both the clinical and business aspects of healthcare,” Dr. Lit said. “The right partner has the experience to help you identify which data sets and tools to use, but also what questions to ask to get the type of analysis and insight you need. ”

According to Dr. Litt, it’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits all solution.

“Today, there are a multitude of technology tools available, so no one is limited to one brand or one option,”  he said. “Find the provider who can create the right solution for the unique needs of your organization.”

But even with the right solutions in place, there are still challenges ahead. Namely, interoperability.

“Interoperability remains an elusive goal, but vendors have recently made important moves toward overcoming that hurdle,” Dr. Litt explained. “In March of 2013, Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth and Greenway Medical Technologies created the CommonWell Health Alliance to promote data exchange standards. That’s a great start.  But for this project to make a real impact, it has to address not only data exchange standards, like HC7, but also content standards that define meaning for diagnostic labels and other descriptive entries, like SNOMED and LOINC.”

Another sign of progress is the 10-year collaborative agreement just signed by SNOMED and LOINC and the increasing use of vendor-neutral archives for diagnostic images. Across the healthcare community, we’re seeing the signs: companies are setting aside proprietary interests   in favor of universal communication.

If that trend continues, the prognosis for the healthcare industry—and all of us—is very good.

“Once the healthcare industry learns to share data easily and effectively, a whole new world of understanding becomes possible through data analytics,” says Dr. Litt.

Leave it to the doctor to get right to the heart of the matter.

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