Advancing Telehealth with Data and Analytics

Maturation of analytic capabilities driven by federal requirements or incentives.

When it comes to health analytic capabilities, the private sector arguably has the federal government beat, partly because of a defined business case and industry talent. Health-based departments and agencies are still working to close that gap with collaboration and data-based initiatives.

In fact, those private sector advancements have been “facilitated in many ways, and many times, by federal investment,” said Matthew Quinn, senior adviser for health information technology at the Health Resources and Services Administration. At the Cloudera Government Forum in Washington D.C., Quinn added the maturation of analytic capabilities at the everyday doctor’s office or health center is also driven by federal requirements or incentives.

For instance, the government encourages the use of electronic health records and health information exchange and works with the private sector to implement standards to facilitate new technologies. HRSA’s support and programs for technical assistance have also allowed health centers to be early adopters of telehealth technologies for reasons that include hospital staffing shortage requirements and the disability of patients to travel.

This is because HRSA, which is in the Health and Human Services Department, oversees more than 90 programs and 3,000 grantees in efforts to improve health care for people geographically isolated, or economically or medically vulnerable, according to its mission. Quinn’s role, however, is rather new.

“I discover new programs at HRSA every day and my job as senior adviser is to look at those programs, work with those programs and think about how they should use technology to support their goals,” Quinn said.

Quinn, whose background includes positions at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Federal Communications Commission and Intel Corp., said he is also the point person between HRSA and other agencies. He works with both the public and private sector on the use of health technology.

“I learn new things every day that I bring back to HRSA and try to make happen,” he added. Because HRSA is an operational agency, those 90 programs aren’t often focused on how they interact with other programs in the agency and the outside world. “So I have to be very mindful of that role and not disrupting what they’re doing, but thinking about how they work and helping them work better,” Quinn said.

Part of that means improving health care by using data and analytics to measure health care. While that once meant measuring a hospital quality score once a year, it now entails implementing and instituting data analytic tools and the internal capacity to use that data for improvement activities. If hospitals are able to measure their performance in near or real-time, staff can take the steps needed to progress quicker and more efficiently.

To do so in the federal government, Quinn advised his peers to treat data and analytics as a journey rather than a thing.

“Getting there really takes time and it takes resources,” he said, and not just technical resources. First, it includes the right staff, equipped with data scientists, analysts and other crucial team members.

For example, HRSA stores data from across the agency and makes it available for agency-wide use. Having staff members who know to leverage and use that data in their own office is important and progressive.

“Look for people who are into solving the world’s problems, who are not scared to go address the challenges of the day,” Quinn said.

This includes recruiting proper talent or developing those skills internally and trying out new technologies or ways of solving those problems. Rather than outsourcing contractors or having to choose between analytic capabilities as an IT function or business function, Quinn advised finding people with side skills in analytics or data science as it can be internally helpful to the CIO office.

Second, agencies need to pinpoint a real problem to solve or define the most urgent ones.

“This is a common reason for failed initiatives in this area,” Quinn said. It’s not just a technology exercise but a matter of identifying what needs to be done and the right technology tools for the job from an analytic perspective. Agencies also need to consider how to get the data, what sources to get it from and how often it will need to be updated to support analytic functions.

Lastly, Quinn advised agencies to “eat your own dog food.” In other words, if a regulatory agency is putting out a rule, Quinn said that agency should be a shining example of practicing that rule. In health IT, agencies may be able to demonstrate this when working with the internet of things.

For example, government challenges concerning the internet of things will range from managing the stream of data and separating the signal from the noise to tackling the interoperability and cybersecurity of all these devices. It’ll require safeguarding initiatives and educating consumers on how to properly change passwords and use the network in a way that won’t interfere with other components, according to Quinn.

“So getting from there to here, again, I think are great opportunities for the government to demonstrate,” he said.

HRSA’s Office for the Advancement of Telehealth demonstrates this in its efforts to promote telehealth technologies to improve health care delivery, education and information services, especially in special needs populations. The challenges here require thinking about this whole new set of technologies holistically in order to properly run and resource the office’s regional and national technical assistant centers for advancing telehealth.

Progress in this field has led to hospitals using telehealth technology to care for patients remotely and share information. This could be especially helpful in rural areas where getting to a medical care facility for treatment is difficult and for future continuous real-time remote patient monitoring.

“Then you’re getting to the big data,” Quin said. “That’s the sort of acceleration that we’re trying to provide or facilitate for.”