Laboratory Analytics 101

Vol. 24 • Issue 4 • Page 14

Cover Story

Analytic data in the laboratory enables laboratories to gain a better understanding of how their resources are being used toward the goal of producing accurate and timely lab results. This data can then be utilized to guide future laboratory business decisions that promote efficiency.

Many versions of business intelligence software directly support the operational needs of a laboratory-monitoring test utilization, turnaround time, workload and staffing analysis, cost analysis, trends in errors and other quality assurance efforts, and managing outreach business. Laboratories today are using real-time data analysis tools and management dashboards to help managers identify opportunities to boost efficiency and minimize lab expenses.

Linking Lab Data With Other Data Sets

In the future, however, we are looking at not only using data to be efficient within the laboratory, but merging the lab’s data with other data sets to gain insight into overall patient care needs in a more comprehensive way. ­Simply put, lab analytics are extremely important, but by combining lab data with data from finance, pharmacy, radiology, and other departments, the benefits are greatly magnified.

Healthcare analytics that include lab data offer more opportunities to improve patient care and save healthcare dollars, and the role of the pathologist or laboratory leader in this amalgam is essential. If you think about the lab as a tool instead of as its own entity, and think of the lab’s value to the overall healthcare system, what the lab brings to the table is tremendously powerful in regards to patient risk stratification and population health management. The information from the lab, combined with other clinical and financial data sets, is worth much more than the value of the tests themselves.

Will Lab Professionals Step Into this Role?

Yet, according to Brad Brimhall, MD, MPH, professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, this will all depend on how far laboratorians are willing to push outward and combine their data. “If they stick with only lab data, they will limit the possibilities, but if they reach beyond internal analysis, much more benefit can be realized,” he said. “One of the areas where leading laboratories are starting to make a difference is in contributing to utilization management, but where you can really get leverage and traction is when you look at other departmental data with this, such as pharmacy, OR time, clinic visits, quality metrics, severity of disease adjustment, and radiology,” he added.

Converting Data to Intelligence

In an environment flooded with information, being able to intelligently convert information into knowledge and act upon it is key. By taking the vast amount of healthcare data and applying advanced data analytic technologies, the opportunity to positively impact patient care multiplies. Integration and advanced data analysis have been around for some time, yet laboratories have not really embraced their implementation. What is changing, however, is how organizations view clinical diagnostic information-not only as the result of a lab test, but as a valuable deliverable from the laboratory that, in conjunction with other data, can impact patient care and healthcare costs on an organization-wide scale.

First Step: Collaborate With Finance

One of the first crucial steps is collaborating with your finance department to make sure you have a firm understanding of all laboratory costs. The second step is understanding how your hospital or organization sees those costs. This information is required before you can begin to determine the cost of any project within your hospital or clinic. Dr. Brimhall says this is part of the value equation: “If you can’t measure the cost, then you don’t know the value; likewise, if you can’t measure the outcomes, you don’t know the value, either. It’s shocking that today so many places can’t accurately measure costs. In the future, this will become a key competency for healthcare organizations to survive. If they don’t know where their money is going with a reasonable amount of detail, they aren’t going to be able to make significant changes.”

5 Key Skill Sets for Healthcare Data Analysts

Moving forward through the continuing reform of the healthcare system, jobs will exist for healthcare data analysts. The question then becomes, who is best fit to fill these positions? Dr. Brimhall believes laboratorians and pathologists are uniquely positioned to fill this role. “If they have the required skills-knowledge of medicine, computer systems, finance, operational improvements, and presentation skills-they have a high-value job. And the reason I think the lab is uniquely positioned is because it is an aspect of healthcare that touches almost all parts of medicine in some way. Labs and pathology touch 90-95% of what comes through a clinic or hospital in some way,” he said (Table).healthcare data analysts

Think through the list of required traits. In the first category, knowledge of medicine, labs are better positioned than most because of the breadth of medical conditions labs tests for. The second skill is knowledge of computers, specifically in regards to database functionality. In a laboratory, a vast amount of processes involve analytical thinking, so in this category, it is just a matter of deepening that knowledge base. For the third skill, finance, labs certainly touch on cost accounting, either having done their own internal cost analysis or simply in examining proposals from vendors. In regards to understanding operational improvements and how to measure quality, the fourth skill, this is commonly performed in laboratories and is not only limited to the lab but often occurs within other projects that involve the lab, such as developing a cardiac care center in the ED that requires lab involvement to run the cardiac monitors. The last category, presentation skills, may take some practice depending on the individual, but lab leaders have experience in presenting proposals to administration or defending budget requests to hospital boards.

Laboratory Professionals as the ‘Glue’

For the five knowledge sets required for the role of health data analyst, laboratorians and pathologists may have in each of them a nascent skill set that can be further developed. Noted Dr. Brimhall, “The healthcare analyst, with these strengths, will be able to analyze the value proposition for both sides: costs and benefits. And I think the lab and pathology are better positioned to migrate into that. Perhaps currently, there is no single group that has the whole picture, but if there is one group to either step into this role, or to be the glue to pull groups together to do this, the lab is a great place to be.” Laboratory professionals are trained to understand test orders and in what sequence testing takes place to establish a specific diagnosis, and typically also have expertise in knowing the next steps in patient care protocol. In other words, they have an advantage by knowing which questions to ask of the lab data.

Dr. Brimhall is concerned that the lab may not grasp this opportunity and will maintain the current status quo. “Some labs may maintain the attitude that we perform lab tests and that’s what we are good at, and all this other discussion about leading data analysis is outside of the lab’s realm or too scary. It’s a big mistake to think that way, but somebody will fill this void. It won’t remain empty for long and it will grow for financial reasons,” he says. “Laboratory professionals sometimes think we are not that important in the big scheme of healthcare and that’s incorrect. We are kind of in the middle of everything. We are in the perfect place to be the glue,” he added.

Being able to analyze data sets may not be innate, but with the advanced skill sets, capabilities, and background that laboratory professionals have, the rest can be quickly learned. The challenge is taking the laboratory to that next level. The basic skill set is there, and with additional support and training, laboratory leaders can become experts in identifying the correlation between data sets. Laboratorians will be able to fill the role of healthcare analyst or become a key member of an analytics team.


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