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COVID-19 crisis reveals need for better healthcare analytics

The need for better analytics in the healthcare industry is being demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis. SAS analytics users discussed the problem at the vendor's virtual conference.

The relative lack of analytics in the healthcare industry played a role in the lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing difficulty in coordinating a way to treat the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

That was the argument of Ryan McGarry, M.D., an emergency room physician at the L.A. County + USC Medical Center in Los Angeles and co-creator and executive producer of the Netflix docuseries Pandemic. McGarry spoke Tuesday at SAS' annual user conference, held virtually this year. More virtual sessions are scheduled for June 16.

In a conversation with SAS global product manager Alyssa Farrell, McGarry detailed how the need for digital transformation -- particular the adoption of analytics -- applies to the healthcare industry, and why the shortage of the technology helps explain pressing shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment such as medical masks.

Long before the first cases of COVID-19, McGarry said he and his colleagues would get emails from hospital administrators about a lack of basic medical supplies -- saline, for example -- with instructions to adjust their treatment accordingly.

"We really, truly, aren't ready [for a pandemic]," McGarry said less than five hours after his ER shift that was supposed to have ended more than 10 hours earlier. "Issues of supply chain and logistics are clearly something that can save lives, and right now you're seeing the collapse of this. We've all been caught with our pants down, and this is something that couldn't be more emphasized as we go forward as a society."

One supply chain problem that manifested itself after COVID-19 began to hit hard in the U.S. was a lack of the specific cotton swabs needed to perform tests for the coronavirus.

Issues of supply chain and logistics are clearly something that can save lives, and right now you're seeing the collapse of this. We've all been caught with our pants down.
Ryan McGarry, M.D.Emergency medicine physician, L.A. County + USC Medical Center

"We were so relieved when we finally got tests, and who could have predicted that the one thing that we wouldn't have were these specific cotton-tipped sterile swabs that we needed to activate the tests?" McGarry said. "Do you know where the one factory that makes them is? Northern Italy, where COVID-19 was raging greater and harder than anywhere else in the world. We are living a true horror movie."

Meanwhile, healthcare data, often deeply siloed and lacking structure for analysis, is difficult to access and share.

Raw patient numbers are known, such as the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, been hospitalized and died. But data about symptoms, which treatments may be showing promise and which aren't, and other information that doesn't easily travel beyond a given hospital's walls is not so easily shared.

There's no easy fix to the problems the healthcare industry faces, many of which come down to disorganized data and the dearth of analytics, McGarry said.

"If anyone can make mine and my colleagues' lives better and improve the lives of patients it's y'all, as far as really getting a handle here on the complete cluster that is so much technology in medicine," McGarry said. "We're at a point where a lot of what we do can be streamlined and improved. I'm concerned that here in 2020 many of us feel that … global shipping companies know more about the location of a package than we do about patient flow and updated patient information."

The systems most hospitals use, he continued, are built for billing departments rather than patient care.

"When we have developed novel techniques among us, the way they have been shared is through Facebook and other social media," McGarry said. "I find it embarrassing that my colleagues in New York were discovering a potentially life-saving maneuver and we were sharing that via unregulated pathways. Had it gone through the New England Journal of Medicine, we would still be waiting for that to be published."

Business intelligence software, analytics platforms that give organizations an overview of their own operations and allow data to be shared and disseminated quickly and easily so it can be digested and analyzed, have the potential to help healthcare providers more quickly determine the best treatments for COVID-19, and perhaps even speed up the development of a vaccine.

n organization's scientific data analysis is displayed on a sample SAS dashboard.
A sample SAS dashboard shows how an organization is using the vendor's products to analyze scientific data.

"Instead of clicking things for our billers we could be able to capture data in a meaningful way and then provide it to a source that can really think about what to do with it," McGarry said.

Meanwhile, SAS, among many other vendors, is working with not only healthcare organizations but also federal, state and local governments to understand the pandemic and prepare for its aftermath.

SAS, for example, has been working closely with Cleveland Clinic, among other organizations on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

"Right now the teams are busy implementing the use of technology in support of contact tracing, fighting the spread of the disease," said Oliver Schabenberger, SAS chief operating officer and chief technology officer, also speaking at the virtual conference.

Analytics, however, have not yet permeated the healthcare industry enough, according to McGarry. And yet the technology is desperately needed.

"I hope that we can emerge from this medical event with some improvements in society that improve our lives with a less-is-more approach," McGarry said. "But the more is the technology that can really help us."

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