by Brian Eastwood

Big Data, EHR Driving Healthcare IT Innovation

Dec 05, 20126 mins
AnalyticsData ManagementData Warehousing

Deploying electronic health records remains a top short-term priority for healthcare organizations in the United States, but it's the promise of robust analysis of the data within EHR systems -- not to mention BI, ERP and financial apps -- that's motivating longer-term investments, according to Gartner.

Healthcare IT adoption in the United States today is largely defined by requirements to demonstrate the meaningful use of electronic heath record software by 2014.

Gartner says that EHR adoption is a “trigger” for data analytics, improved care management and other innovations. However, these initiatives will take time, the analyst firm notes in a recent report, “Hype Cycle for Healthcare Provider Applications and Systems.”

Big Data Benefits Depend on EHR Systems Evolution

This type of innovation is not necessarily unique to the healthcare industry, says Vi Shaffer, a Gartner analyst and the hype cycle report’s primary author. Retailers, for example, are also placing an increased emphasis on customer engagement and data processing technology. The difference, she says, is both the complexity of the data—think of an intensive care unit (ICU), where information about patient vital signs, drug dosages and even room temperature is constantly updated and sent to the computer at the nurses’ station—and the fact that, until recently, all this information was only on paper.

Feature: Coding Contest Shows How Big Data Analytics Can Improve Healthcare

A “revolution” has defined the last 10 years of healthcare IT, Shaffer says. It has come in two forms: the digitization of patient information and the constant engagement of physicians, clinicians and other caregivers with computers. The result for many healthcare organizations has been the largest investment in IT they’ve ever made, she says.

Meaningful use, which went into effect in 2011 and penalizes providers who aren’t using EHR systems by the start of 2015, has also motivated many reluctant providers to adopt EHR technology. As a result, third-generation EHR systems, which Gartner describes as providing automated support for acute care and ambulatory clinical activities, have moved from “nice-to-have” to “must-have” status.

Meanwhile, other federal mandates, including healthcare reform, should in turn stimulate changes in the way EHR systems work, Gartners says. To improve the flow of patient data—and increase market share—EHR vendors will have to integrate their software with numerous clinical systems, ranging from emergency department and critical care information systems to perioperative and anesthesia charting applications.

“All of these opportunities are triggered by the fact that we have this big mass of clinical data,” Shaffer says. There are different views among physicians on the benefits of analytics, she adds, but the general dynamic boils down to three key questions: “What do I do with all this data? How do I use it for true clinical research? How do I use it to study the effectiveness of my care?”

When it comes to ROI, the Gartner hype cycle report names several technologies worth a look for healthcare organizations now.

  • Big data. This may take time to implement, but it will have a “transformational” benefit, Gartner says, and organizations that implement all facets of big data by 2015 can expect to start to outperform their competitors by as much as 20 percent.
  • Real-time temperature and humidity monitoring. The “practical advantages and relative ease of deployment,” combined with low-cost and straightforward use, make this an easy sell, Gartner says. At the same time, though, “CIOs need to be keenly aware of key advances in enterprise data warehousing and analytics to harness this data within their information road maps.”
  • E-visits. This facet of telemedicine (which Gartner deems a large enough market to merit its own hype cycle report) is catching on now that EHR systems and patient portals include secure messaging. Success comes with setting expectations and enforcing policies, Gartner says.
  • Wireless health asset management. Putting RFID chips on anything that moves—equipment as well as patient wristbands—is an “increasingly routine component of cost and patient care quality management.” Since there’s a lot to monitor, CIOs must collaboration with clinical engineering or biomedical device departments.

Analysis: Hospital Networks Take Key Role in Healthcare as IT Makes Further Clinical Advances

The following types of applications, however, may not be worth a healthcare CIO’s immediate attention:

  • Patient decision aids and personal health management tools. These appear largely in the form of interactive apps that educate patients or help them make care decisions, such as seeking treatment or undergoing surgery for a particular ailment. However, Gartner says their effectiveness is questionable and adoption remains low.
  • Personal health records. The concept is attractive, as it gives patients ownership of their data, but poor usability and vendor disinterest have hindered adoption. Only with a government mandate, as is the case in Australia, does PHR adoption seem to catch on, Gartner says. Patient portals, which connect patients directly to their caregivers, are more popular.
  • The patient-centered medical home. There’s been much discussion of making this a reality, especially in light of the accountable care organization model touted by healthcare reform and examples such as the “granny pod,” but information exchange challenges and a reimbursement model unfavorable to insurers hinder adoption.
  • Patient self-serve kiosks. While these can streamline patient registration and payment collection, the ROI isn’t there, Gartner says. Most organizations are better off focusing on meaningful use or the conversion to the ICD-10 code set, which must be done by Oct. 1, 2014.
  • Patients Missing Piece in Healthcare IT Innovation

    That said, Shaffer says patients are the missing piece. Now that clinicians are using computers to interpret data, communicate and engage with patients while they’re in the hospital—all of which improve care—it’s time to bring patients into the mix as well. This takes on added importance as chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity continue to affect populations around the world.

    Habitual patient engagement, which can remind them to exercise or take their medicine, can help physicians respond to situations that would ordinarily result in hospitalization. This cuts costs, which is no small matter—treating chronic conditions accounts for 75 percent of overall U.S. health care costs, and many such conditions are preventable.

    Shaffer encourages healthcare organizations to look for innovations wherever they may be. Twenty years ago, new technology trickled down from the developed world (namely, the United States). Today, though, hospitals in Singapore, New Zealand, the Middle East and elsewhere can offer lessons to American providers.

    “Innovations come from anywhere and discoveries need to be accessible from everywhere,” Shaffer says. “There really is a shrinking of the world.”

    Brian Eastwood is a senior editor for You can reach him on Twitter @Brian_Eastwood or via email. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook and on Google +.