health care data
Oklahoma Hospital Association Vice President of Quality and Clinical Initiatives LaWanna Halstead, left, confers with Patrice Greenawalt, OHA clinical initiatives manager, about patient safety data. (Provided)

(Editor’s note: The following piece is presented as part of an advertising package purchased by the Oklahoma Hospital Association in 2019.)

Today, metadata and individual health information records are revolutionizing how Americans answer important questions about health care. Patients can see detailed records on everything from hospital readmission rates to post-surgery complications. Doctors and hospitals are able to use data to pinpoint the most effective practices for medical procedures from childbirth to heart surgery.

What makes an individual doctor “good”? What about a hospital? If you ask most patients, their answers will revolve around their personal experiences. They might tell you that staff had a good bedside manner; the doctor seemed knowledgeable; the treatment was effective.

The data revolution is here, and it is changing the way we consume and deliver health care services in Oklahoma and nationwide.

Health care data: A three-pronged improvement plan

LaWanna Halstead

LaWanna Halstead, vice president of quality and clinical initiatives for the Oklahoma Hospital Association (OHA), has observed this trend from within the health care industry for almost two decades. She began her career in health care as an emergency room nurse and later joined the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality (OFMQ). At both OFMQ and OHA, Halstead has led a series of hospital and physician office quality improvement projects.

At the center of many of those improvement projects has been health care data, which she said is constantly changing and improving the way we approach health care in three important ways.

Patient empowerment

First, data puts a lot of power back in the hands of patients. The website posts hundreds of different rankings and data points. For example, a patient pursuing a hip replacement can compare several nearby hospitals for several factors, including their overall ranking, rates of complication from surgery, and satisfaction surveys submitted by patients.

“It used to be that your primary physician would recommend a specialist who would recommend a surgeon, and patients had very little ability to make an informed choice,” said Halstead. “That has changed and will continue to change as our younger, more tech-savvy generations age and have greater heath needs.”

Health care professionals state that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) often doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the quality of care provided and only 25 percent of patients report using websites like it today. But expect that to change as millennials and the members of Generation Z begin needing hip replacements. Quality rankings will continue to improve in their methodology as consumers demand more and more data.

Self-improvement and best practices

The second way data is revolutionizing health care is by identifying issues of concern. Statewide and nationwide data can reveal the best way to deliver care. Today’s hospitals and clinics are constantly combing through performance-related numbers to find ways to improve their services.

“Today, if your infection rate for patients is higher than it should be, you’ll know immediately,” said Halstead. “That will lead to a root-cause analysis: Are our doctors and nurses maintaining good hand-hygiene practices? Are they complying with safe surgery practices?”

Halstead points to the example of the use of razors in operating rooms as a practice that has fallen by the wayside due to health care data.

“Anyone who had a surgical procedure 20 years ago will remember getting shaved with a razor,” she said. “Today, we know the little nicks you can get from the razor are a lot more infection-prone and dangerous than having a hair near a wound. Data showed us we needed to end that practice.”

“We know what kind of medicine you need and at exactly what intervals,” said Halstead. “We’ve taken a lot of variation out of how to treat common conditions and replaced it with certainty and better outcomes.”

Health care of the future

Finally, data is pointing the way toward a future of better and more efficient care. The data assembled by CMS and used by hospitals to pursue improvements is metadata; it is anonymous and (by law) never tied to individual patients. But the future of health care is trending toward information-sharing that can make medical care less expensive and safer. Many hospitals are already investing in ways to safely and securely share individual patient records with each other.

The implications for successful sharing of medical records are massive. For instance, a doctor can easily see what medications a patient has been prescribed by another provider and avoid any dangerous conflicts. A frequent seeker of opioids can be identified and offered treatment. Additionally, the types of mundane screenings, tests, and imaging procedures that are often repeated – at great cost to patients and the health care system – can be reduced when results are shared freely (but securely) across different medical systems. While hospitals are making impressive inroads on this front, a lot of work remains to be done.

“If health systems can talk to each other and share patient records, we can eliminate a lot of inconvenience and duplication that may delay care and drive up costs,” Halstead said. “That’s the future, and it’s an exciting one for medical professionals and for patients.”

For those looking to make informed decisions about their health, improve their practice or invest in the future of health care, the message is clear: start crunching numbers. The future is now.