Health System Sees Big Dividends From Sharing Data

For some health organizations, the biggest obstacle to data sharing isn’t technical. Many a health IT pundit has argued — I think convincingly — that while health organizations understand the benefits of data sharing, they still see it as against their financial interests, as patients with access to data everywhere aren’t bound to them.

But recently, I read an intriguing story by Healthcare IT News about a major exception to the rule. The story laid out how one healthcare system has been sharing its data with community researchers in an effort to promote innovation. According to writer Mike Miliard, the project was able to proceed because the institution was able to first eliminate many data silos, giving it a disciplined view of the data it shared.

At Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Sanford Health, one health leader has departed from standard health system practices and shared a substantial amount of proprietary data with research organizations in his community, including certain clinical, claims, financial and operational data. Sanford is working with researchers at South Dakota State University on mathematics issues, University of South Dakota business researchers, Dakota State University on computer science/informatics and University of North Dakota on public health.

The effort is led by Benson Hsu, MD, vice president of enterprise data and analytics for the system. Hsu tells the magazine that the researchers have been developing analytical apps which are helping the health system with key issues like cost efficiencies, patient engagement and quality improvement. And more radically, Hsu plans to share what he discovers with competitors in the community.

Hsu laid the groundwork for the program, HIN reports, by integrating far-flung data across the sprawling health system, including multiple custom versions of the Epic EHR, multiple financial accounts and a variety of HR systems; analytics silos cutting across areas from clinical decision support and IT reports to HR/health plan analytics; and data barriers which included a lack of common data terms, benchmarking tools and common analytic calculator. But after spending a year pulling these areas into a functioning analytics foundation, Sanford was ready to share data with outside entities.

At first, Hsu’s managers weren’t fond of the idea of sharing masses of clinical data with anyone, but he sold them on the idea. “It’s the right thing to do. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do for the community — and the community is going to recognize that Sanford health is here for the community,” he argued. “Secondly, it’s innovation. Innovation in our backyard, based on our population, our social determinants, our disparities.”

According to HIN, this “crowdsourced” approach to analytics has helped Sanford make progress with predicting risk, chronic disease management, diagnostic testing and technology utilization, among other things. And there’s no reason to think that the effort won’t keep generating progress.

Many institutions would have shot down an effort like this immediately, before it could accomplish results. But it seems that Sanford’s creative approach to big data and analytics is paying off. While it might not work everywhere, I’m betting there are many other institutions that could benefit from tapping the intellect of researchers in their community. After all, no matter how smart people are, some answers always lie outside your walls.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.