“Big data is old news.”

When Susan Collins, PhD, MHA, lead faculty member in the health care administration doctoral program at Capella University, says those words, she doesn’t mean that data is not important or that it is something the health care industry has moved on from. Far from it.

Rather, what she means is that harvesting data just for the sake of harvesting data does little good. We are drowning in data, especially in the health care profession. Collins argues that health care professionals need to move on from thinking, “I’ve got tons of data, so I must be doing my job,” to “What exactly should I be doing with this data and what are the issues I’m trying to solve with it?”

“It’s not enough just to have data,” Collins stresses. “Most health care organizations have enormous amounts of data. It’s the thoughtful analysis of that data and deciding what to do with it that matters. Health care administrators today need to be equipped with the right data – data that has been tested and proven to solve a specific problem – to make a persuasive argument to convince their leadership or other key stakeholders to take action. The only way they are going to be able to make that case is to present data in a way that demonstrates its impact.”

Enter the scientific method.

Collins is a firm believer in the need for health care professionals to use the scientific method to analyze the sea of data at their fingertips in a way that solves real problems and demonstrates real outcomes. If you look up “scientific method” in the dictionary, you’ll likely find a definition like this: “a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from the data, and the hypothesis is empirically proven.” But Collins has a much simpler way of defining it: “Prove it.”

Prove that your data is accurate. Prove that your data is the right data to solve the problem at hand. Prove that your analysis of the data demonstrates meaningful results. Prove it.

So how can health care professionals use the scientific method to prove that their data can lead to meaningful outcomes? Collins offers the following 4 steps:

Step 1 – Identify the problem you are trying to solve.

It might seem absurd, but Collins says too many health care administrators jump in and try to take action on the latest data-laden report they receive without knowing what problem or opportunity they are trying to address. Having a clear purpose and end outcome identified is a critical first step before acting on any data.

“Health care administrators need to slow down and carefully think through what they intend to do with the data they have,” Collins says. “They need to ask themselves, ‘With this data, if I improve upon it or utilize it in new ways, will it solve a specific problem?’”

Step 2 –  Take a hard look at your data.

The problem with big data is just that – it’s “big.” It can be hard to know where to start. But it’s critical that health care administrators zero in on exactly the data they need to act upon. They need to know where it’s coming from and what it is telling them. Even just defining what “data” is can be challenging.

“Data is far more than just numbers on a spreadsheet,” Collins explains. “It can be qualitative and quantitative, categorical or continuous. Yes, it can come from your IT department, but it can also come from staff meetings, patient interactions, or feedback from the broader community. All of these sources and types of data should be considered. The key is to carefully analyze it scientifically before taking action. That means testing for statistical significance, including and considering confidence intervals, and evaluating data over a longer time period instead of discrete snapshots to find important trends in the outcomes. Use the power of the scientific method and analyze the data accurately and appropriately. Then, you can use it for problem-solving.”

However, before that analysis begins, Collins advises that health care professionals step back and take a broader view of the industry to determine if others have already solved for the problem they are looking to tackle. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel.

Step 3 –  Test your data against the problem you are trying to solve—with a team.

OK, so you’ve identified the problem you are trying to solve. You’ve carefully examined and culled through your data sets. Now what? It’s time to take action and test that data against your desired outcome.

While there are many models that are based on the scientific method, Collins provides the example of the PDSA cycle (plan, do, study, act) as a process that many health care organizations use. This is a rapid-cycle process that is focused on continual improvement.

However, even for the most eager health care administrator who is chomping at the bit to test and prove out a theory based on carefully curated data, Collins advises against trying to go it alone.

“None of this should be done in a vacuum,” Collins says. “Don’t try to be a hero and do this by yourself because you’re likely to fail. There are just too many moving parts – data analysis, industry research, real-world testing, reporting, communicating, you name it. You need experts and advocates in all of these areas.”

Step 4 –  Evaluate, communicate, and repeat.

Now comes the critical moment. After all the hard work, did it work? Do the results demonstrate meaningful evidence that you’ve “moved the needle” in solving for the problem you identified at the outset? If so, who needs to know?

“The most important thing to understand is that this is a continual process,” Collins says. “Beyond the data analysis and testing, health care administrators need be skilled in how they communicate the results. Yes, they need to act like scientists, but they also need to think like communicators, marketers, and PR professionals. You may have achieved amazing, exciting results, but if you don’t effectively share those results in a persuasive and contextual way, it could all be for naught.”

The scientific method enables health care professionals to be more persuasive and compelling. They still need to be able to “sell” their findings, but with proven data backing them up, it’s a much easier sell to make.

Learn more about the Doctor of Health Administration program at Capella University.

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