Labs sit on a mountain of data. But to turn these data into a greater asset, they must be mined and translated into actionable intelligence.
“It’s just sitting there; it’s in our archive,” says Jay Jones, Ph.D., Director of Chemistry and Regional Labs at Geisinger Health System. “We have gold in the mine that we haven’t really drilled for yet. Once you pull it out, you can package it in a way that’s understandable to show a trend and an opportunity for savings.”
Luckily, this data mining isn’t as hard as it may seem. With the proper organization, along with outreach to staff and colleagues, you can transform your data into gold that drives clinical decision-making.
One of the biggest issues facing labs today is the unstoppable transition from a fee-for-service environment to a value- or outcome-based economy. In this economy, you need data to help you construct a value proposition based on quantifiable outcomes.
“It can be very difficult for us to have a metric to show how the hard work our technologists put in, and the great care they provide for patients, affects outcomes,” says John Longshore, Ph.D., Director of Molecular Pathology at Carolinas Pathology Group.
But the solution is there, Jones says. “We just need to use our creative energy to pull it out in content that tells a story, then tell that story to the right people.”
A first step to maximizing the value of data is to recognize some readily available resources. Use your expertise to identify useful data in electronic health records and the LIS archive. Effectively present that data to executives in your institution to help improve clinical and organizational outcomes.
The laboratory information system (LIS) is a great place to start, supplying plenty of concrete information to put in front of the decision makers in your institution. “Data mining in the LIS archive is not that difficult,” Jones says. “Basically, it’s in tables. You can pull it out as a CSV file, and import it into Excel.”
For example, Jones said he once used this method to create graphics that showed his TSH-use for a previous year. He was able to supply a substantial amount of content, which got him into monthly meetings with his chief medical information officer. There, he not only had the opportunity to present the information he had garnered from the LIS, but could also demonstrate the value of his lab.
Your colleagues and staff have their own projects and goals for improving patient care. You, the laboratorian, may have data and insights that can help them. All you have to do is find out what your data can do for them, and make your lab irreplaceable.
“Reach out to other departments,” says Fernando Nascimento, System Director of Laboratory Services at Health First. “Sometimes it's just reaching out to a director of pharmacy and saying, ‘Is there anything that you need?’ Maybe you have the data that would improve one of their projects.”
His advice is to find out the top three projects a department is working on, then determine how your data can help. For example, physicians often struggle with not being able to get information quickly, which causes delays in the discharge process. “A lab has its own IT staff, so maybe we can find a way to help them,” Nascimento says.
Kathy Allen, Ph.D., President of Allen & Associates Management Consulting, says that labs often exist in a culture where it’s very difficult to understand what would be significant to someone else. “You have a lot of data but you don't know how to move it to useful knowledge that will make a difference in your system,” she says. “Going out and talking to other people allows you to look at your data from a different point of view.”
You have resources and information that your colleagues may find critically useful in doing their jobs. Provide that, and your lab will become an asset across all departments.
Another key source can be your staff. Developing a talent for listening and asking questions can result in big dividends. Use your staff as a resource to bring new insight into ways your data could be useful. Also, look outside the lab and connect with the larger system, to benefit from an outside perspective and unify system intelligence.
“Ask questions of your staff,” Allen says. “Say, ‘Okay, here’s our data on X; what do you see? What might be helpful for us or valuable for others to know?’ That helps them see the data in a different kind of way.”
Building collective intelligence also requires going beyond the boundary of the lab. It sometimes takes an outside opinion to provide perspective. Jones illustrates this point with a metaphor: “The lab is swimming around in a fish bowl. We need to go outside the fish bowl and see what the rest of the industry is doing.”
Labs can no longer be autonomous. They are connected to and sustained by a larger system. Engaging with that system to find out what’s truly valuable to its other parts is essential to survival.
At the highest strategic level, data plays an essential role as the industry transitions from a fee-for-service model to accountable care. Your data can do more than prove the value of your lab. It can help promote the lab industry as a whole. Be proactive about sharing your data and integrating with the larger system to help labs thrive in the new economy like never before.
Right now, the industry still has a foot in each world. Mike Snyder, Principal of Clinical Lab Solutions, likens the state of the industry to getting on a boat: “We have one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat. The data that we have is our way to get all the way into the boat without getting wet.”
Every lab has the data needed to develop value models, but organizing it is the key. “We can look at the data that’s in the LIS, but we have to go to the larger systems, and tie it all together,” Snyder says.
The problem that exists now is lack of integration. “You’ve got these wonderful things going but they’re stuck in Denver, or they’re stuck in Melbourne, or they’re stuck in New Brunswick,” Snyder says. “We’ve got to get them. We’ve got to bring them out, and that’s the real key to solving the problem.”
We can look at where the payers are and where the employers are, and develop those value propositions around data that will move us forward and leverage what we’re doing.
Senior Vice President Network Management
Avalon Healthcare Solutions
Labs have a duty to leverage their data effectively. If they don’t take action, they may find themselves condemned to the role of mere cost centers. Year after year, they could be asked to cut staff and expenses instead of playing a part in building their institution.
“It’s an economic duty because of the potential disaster that’s coming our way,” Snyder says. “We’ve got to stop it and data is the way to do that. We can build the models and prove that the lab is the value that drives it.”
Data provide an opportunity to transform the lab into a valuable, practical resource that’s essential to managing the transitions facing the healthcare industry today.
Your data are there. Your staff insights are there. The needs of your colleagues in other departments are there. All your lab has to do is seize the opportunity.