Blog Post

Think Small: Mining Little Data

Think-Small Mining-Little-Data 2

Big data is the latest buzzword to get tossed around healthcare. And for good reason: the possibilities that come from harnessing its power to improve organizational performance have seduced many of the nation’s healthcare executives.

Yet, while health systems are pouring time, money, and massive effort into crunching big data into useful insights, they are neglecting the more readily accessible and actionable little data filtering through their practices.

This is a mistake.

The operational visibility produced by everyday “little data” — when leveraged properly — provides physicians and administrators with a rich picture of organizational performance and improvement opportunities in ways that big data never will.

What is “little data”?

Organizations tend to overlook or take for granted the value that can be found within data sets that are specific to their practices. This may be due to the glare coming from the shiny sheen of big, system or population-wide data, or it may be due to a poor understanding of what little data is and how to access it.

Little data is the collection of everyday, organization-specific performance indicators that are easy to measure and often related to operational and/or patient service factors.

Organizations just need to have the right tools in place and to know where to look to leverage data they are already producing. Appointment scheduling, patient satisfaction or complaints, claims and billing systems, EHR utilization, and inbound and outbound communications, among others, make up the variety of sources from which little data can effectively be pulled and mined.

And despite its diminutive name, leveraging little data can produce immediate results leading to big wins either via more revenue, better clinical efficiency, or higher patient satisfaction.

Little data in practice, not in theory

I recently worked with a team to conduct an operational assessment of a midsize multispecialty medical group in California, which was experiencing operational hiccups degrading its financial results.

A small data set on patient appointments and scheduling was obtained and revealed a stunning finding – nearly 30,000 appointments were canceled annually, and due to poor follow-up and coordination among front-office staff, only about one-third of them were being rescheduled.

The lost patient volume reduced the group’s net revenue by approximately $1.2 million (or 5% of total patient revenue). We discovered that increasing the group’s rescheduling rate to just 50% within a year would yield almost $400,000 in annual revenue.

Another example of using existing operational data to improve performance comes from a small women’s health group client of ours that acquired another physician practice. Soon after, the group began experiencing a significant uptick in unexplained missed appointments, despite the group’s use of a call service for telephone reminders.

When we were brought in to diagnose the cause of these missed appointments, we learned that a simple mistake was at the center of the problem. A member of the front-office team was following the protocol of a previous telephone service by adding an unnecessary digit to the telephone numbers that were scheduled for appointment reminders. This caused all the telephone numbers to be off by one digit, which meant patients never received the reminders. By identifying and quickly remedying this problem, the practice saw an immediate drop in its no-show rate, from 11% to 8%.

Whether being reimbursed through fee-for-service or fee-for-value, having a handle on patient no-show rates and appointment rescheduling rates equates to higher patient volumes, which means more revenue generated.

Don’t Forget the Little Data

Little data, essentially deep visibility into your organization’s operations, might not exude the appeal of its bigger brother, but when utilized effectively, it can reveal clinical and administrative performance gaps and highlight clear opportunities for immediate, meaningful improvement.

Organizations will and should continue to explore the power of big data as care delivery shifts toward population health management; but as they do, it’s critical not to forget to look inward at specific and accessible indicators of practice performance.

Mining little data allows healthcare organizations to do just that.

This post was originally featured on the athenahealth Health Care Leadership Forum – August 29th, 2014.