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Big data, big opportunities: Students with the skills to identify trends help medical orgs improve patient outcomes

Big data, big opportunities: Students with the skills to identify trends help medical orgs improve patient outcomes

May 10, 2016 at 12:00am

By Karen-Janine Cohen ’14 | Photos by Doug Garland ’10

Even before finishing FIU’s graduate program in Health Informatics and Management Systems, alumna Christina Cascante was hired by Mount Sinai Medical Center as a systems analyst, working on testing and other technical issues of the hospital’s electronic medical record system. The job offer came just as federal mandates were ramping up to have doctors’ notes and other health care information digitized.

Cascante graduated in spring 2015 and said that what she learned during the 14-month College of Business program gave her a 360-degree understanding of how IT, health care, business and big data are coming together in a field growing by leaps and bounds.

“I didn’t realize how complex and vast it is, and how relevant right now,” said the 26-year-old, who came to the program with a bachelor’s in psychology as well as experience as a systems administrator for a private medical practice. “The program really opened up my eyes to this whole health care IT industry.”


Monica Tremblay

A growing demand

Employers know they are going to need more professionals like Cascante.

Monica Chiarini Tremblay, chair of FIU’s Department of Information Systems and Business Analytics, knows it as well. She is constantly retooling the program, which launched in 2012, to meet evolving industry needs. Along with Gloria Deckard, the program’s newly appointed faculty director, and a group of national and international experts, Tremblay has reshaped the program so businesses that are gathering and parsing medical data — think hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, and public health and research institutions — can find experts to deal with the onslaught of information.

With almost every bit of data now digitized, from patient age and profession to diagnosis and DNA profile, the challenge is not only in sifting through the information but figuring out how to tease meaningful patterns from the mass of data — and even understand what questions should be asked.In the last several years, Tremblay has refined the program so graduates can provide meaningful approaches to businesses and researchers overloaded with data.

“We looked at our areas of strength. We are a department of information systems. Additionally, most of us [professors] do research on health care,” Tremblay said. “Information systems are about the intersection of people, process and technology.”

A leader in the field

FIU was the first university in South Florida to offer a health care informatics program, and the only one to house it within a business school with a focus on process, change management and analytics.

One program goal is teaching students how to find the right approach to fit each business. The first step is understanding thoroughly how the business currently functions.

“If you automate something inefficient, you are just doing inefficient stuff faster,” Tremblay explained. A good example is electronic health record programs used in doctors’ offices. The way that many have been designed ­— which often has doctors’ heads buried in a computer screen — do not take into account the traditional face-to-face interaction between physician and patient.

Both doctors and patients complain that, doctors are looking at screens now rather than making eye contact. Some doctors have even hired scribes to take electronic notes so they can focus on the person in front of them.

Key for students as well, Tremblay said, is learning how to ensure that doctors and office workers are on board with a new way of gathering or managing information, while also validating their concerns. Learning to manage change is a core learning objective of the program. “You have to do training and roll out a system that is not painful.”


Christina Cascante

Going beyond the pie

Data analysis is the third focus. “We need to understand what aggregate data looks and acts like,” Tremblay said. Students are taught how to visually conceive data. It’s far beyond plotting on a graph. Data now is presented in ways that use color, shape and other elements that can quickly and intuitively reveal patterns that lead to insightful use.

Termed visualization tools, they are to traditional pie charts and graphs what the computer is to the typewriter. Software programs such as Tableau allow users to combine, rearrange, update and query data while adding information in real time. It’s a specialty of Tremblay’s and is emphasized in the health informatics program.

If it all sounds rather complex, that is because it is. The program is geared toward nurse managers, hospital mangers, case managers, public health professionals and others whose work is increasingly at the nexus of patient care, IT and big data.

Understanding this kind of knowledge is part of what makes FIU’s grads sought after. Alicia D’Empaire, assistant vice president of Business Intelligence and Decision Support for Baptist Health South Florida, successfully wooed Cascante away from Mount Sinai Medical Center.

“I was looking for someone with a clinical IT background, and someone who has a lot of experience working in health care business, and understands the operational process of the industries,” D’Empaire said.

One must look to the Affordable Care Act to understand why this is important.

As part of health care reform, a program known as Meaningful Use incentivizes hospitals and physicians to implement and use electronic health records technology in a manner that improves patient outcomes, and meets other health care goals.

The technology that allows, for example, both the internist and dermatologist to access the records of Mr. Jones or Mrs. Garcia can also be used to collect and mine reams of data, such as the results of a certain treatment on a large number of patients, or whether prevention programs are correlating with better health outcomes.

At Baptist, one goal was to automate the Meaningful Use reports of 78 physicians practices that are part of Baptist Health Medical Group. “We had a spreadsheet that was updated manually. It took hours to update and the manual process left the data vulnerable to human error,” D’Empaire said.

Cascante, she explained, swiftly moved all the information — from doctors’ X-ray orders to prescription information to patient visits — into Tableau and automated the entire process.

“She was able to provide amazing output,” D’Empaire said. Administrators were then able to get a handle on whether objectives were being met and where improvement was needed.

Turning out top professionals

Cascante said learning how to understand such information was a key part of her FIU experience.

“In a couple of classes, we were given projects to use with this tool [Tableau]. It’s so empowering to have data at your fingertips — which on its own is pretty unusable — but by plugging into Tableau you find all sorts of patterns and variations that could potentially influence some big decisions,” she said.

A developer colleague of Cascante’s also used this visualization tool to help Baptist’s emergency departments better understand work flow: how many patients came in at what times, what days and with what chief complaints. Administrators could mine the data for information on the busiest and slowest days, illness spikes and staffing levels. Colors of red and green were used to describe the department’s dynamics.

“The colors would change depending on the amount of patients coming in the door,” Cascante explained. “The gradient will change [to reflect] patients, month, the time of year — basic information one may look for in this data.”

Since hiring Cascante, D’Empaire also brought on another graduate from FIU’s program and could eventually look for more.

Cascante said that she would not be where she is without having enrolled in the health informatics program.

“I couldn’t be happier,” she said, noting that it was at an FIU event that brought industry representatives to campus where her professional path took off. “It was my very first step in the career world, and it would not have been possible without FIU.”