Healthcare Needs Clinician Data Experts

Posted on November 2, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

This week I read an interesting article by a physician about the huge challenges clinicians face coping with unthinkably large clinical data sets — and what we should do about it. The doctor who wrote the article argues for the creation of a next-gen clinician/health IT hybrid expert that will bridge the gaps between technology and medicine.

In the article, the doctor noted that while he could conceivably answer any question he had about his patients using big data, he would have to tame literally billions of data rows to do so.

Right now, logs of all EHR activity are dumped into large databases every day, notes Alvin Rajkomar, MD. In theory, clinicians can access the data, but in reality most of the analysis and taming of data is done by report writers. The problem is, the HIT staff compiling reports don’t have the clinical context they need to sort such data adequately, he says:

“Clinical data is complex and contextual,” he writes. “[For example,] a heart rate may be listed under the formal vital sign table or under nursing documentation, where it is listed as a pulse. A report writer without clinical background may not appreciate that a request for heart rate should actually include data from both tables.“

Frustrated with the limitations of this process, Rajkomar decided to take the EHR database problem on. He went through an intense training process including 24 hours of in–person classes, a four-hour project and four hours of supervised training to obtain the skills needed to work with large clinical databases. In other words, he jumped right in the middle of the game.

Even having a trained physician in the mix isn’t enough, he argues. Ultimately, understanding such data calls for developing a multidisciplinary team. Clinicians need each others’ perspectives on the masses of data coming in, which include not only EHR data but also sensor, app and patient record outcomes. Moreover, a clinician data analyst is likely to be more comfortable than traditional IT staffers when working with nurses, pharmacists or laboratory technicians, he suggests.

Still, having even a single clinician in the mix can have a major impact, Rajkomar argues. He contends that the healthcare industry needs to create more people like him, a role he calls “clinician-data translator.” The skills needed by this translator would include expertise in clinical systems, the ability to extract data from large warehouses and deep understanding of how to rigorously analyze large data sets.

Not only would such a specialist help with data analysis, and help to determine where to apply novel  algorithms, they could also help other clinicians decide which questions are worth investigating further in the first place. What’s more, clinician data scientists would be well-equipped to integrate data-gathering activities into workflows, he points out.

The thing is, there aren’t any well-marked pathways to becoming a clinician data scientist, with most data science degrees offering training that doesn’t focus on a particular domain. But if you believe Rajkomar – and I do – finding clinicians who want to be data scientists makes a lot of sense for health systems and clinics. While their will always be a role for health IT experts with purely technical training, we need clinicians who will work alongside them and guide their decisions.