The Powerhouse Data Analytics and Visualization Tool That Excels

excel-spreadsheetThe Health Catalyst enterprise data warehouse (EDW) and analytics applications are intentionally built for flexibility, adaptability, and scalability. Unique among industry participants, our platform is known for its ability to produce insights within weeks and months, not years. And we engage in pragmatic innovation as one of our core operating principles. Given all the advanced analytical tools we develop and partner with to improve outcomes, it may come as a surprise to learn about one that’s been around forever, costs practically nothing, and has some of the same data analytics and visualization capabilities of its much more popular counterparts.

It’s called Microsoft Excel; you may have heard of it. The ultra-robust spreadsheet/analysis/visualization application that’s been around for more than 30 years, pairs quite well with several Health Catalyst applications to enhance analytics and visualizations for quantitative data in the course of outcomes improvement.

What Excel Brings to the Table

Health Catalyst’s high-end analytics applications might lead one to believe that equally high-end visualization tools, like QlikView or Tableau, are the only options for illustrating analytics in easily digestible formats. Excel also brings to the table what might normally be associated only with more expensive, licensed software platforms. While Excel may not be ideally suited for qualitative analysis, it might be a preferred program, especially among analysts in the financial sector of healthcare, for quantitative analysis.

With Excel, users can pull data directly from the EDW or directly from multiple source marts into a spreadsheet, and then visualize the data through all the charting capabilities of Excel. Visualizations can then be easily printed or shared via any preferred modality. In recent years, graphing and charting in Microsoft Excel has become even more powerful.

One challenge that Excel users often run into is the ability to analyze large datasets (millions of rows). Tools, such as QlikView, leverage an in-memory, heavily compressed snowflake model to overcome slow loading and page lags. Health Catalyst can overcome some of these challenges in Excel by transforming large datasets into dimensional models before they are consumed in Excel.

Familiarity a Feature for Finance Folks

Healthcare financial analysts look at income and financial statements every day. They use Excel spreadsheets to view numerical data because it’s built for this. Excel is a mainstay application that offers a familiar environment and it does a better job with quantitative data than many other visualization tools.

Excel gives financial analysts a tool to analyze and present data without the need for the additional licensing required of other applications, like QlikView or Tableau. To maintain best practice data governance, analysts can have read-only access to specific tables in the data warehouse and then they can present that data in varying formats using Excel.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Analysis

While Excel is built for quantitative analysis, it’s not a substitute for QlikView or Tableau when it comes to visualizing qualitative data. Therefore, it’s not the ideal application for analyzing clinical data. However, Excel needs to be considered for some of the advantages it offers over these other tools.

For example, a healthcare system, working with Health Catalyst, can load all of its data from various source systems into our enterprise data warehouse. We will transform and apply business rules to the data and create Subject Area Marts. Then the data is loaded into a visualization platform, like QlikView, which compresses the data for quick retrieval, and then it can be displayed in a dashboard. This is also true of Tableau and similar tools.

An application created with these tools will answer specific questions that the healthcare organization asks over and over again; information that it needs every day or every month so it can see how things change over time. But when someone in the organization starts asking other exploratory questions that require ad hoc analysis, this requires a different environment, usually an Excel pivot table. It’s easy to overtax some tools and ask them to perform analyses for which they aren’t designed. Some questions are better left up to Excel, which can be like a sandbox in terms of functionality for flexible, ad-hoc analysis.

Data Governance and Security

With Excel, a user can manipulate the numbers on a spreadsheet by simply changing an Excel value. Then a variation of the source data is now represented. Someone with the proper access can connect directly to the organization’s database, run a background query, and create a table all in Excel. This will bring all of the data into an Excel file. In terms of data governance, this can be a little scary because it requires trust among the people who are using the data, not to mention the substantial file sizes that can be generated. There’s either little oversight, or governance is transferred to the user. This is something to be aware of when working through data governance issues and who is granted access, but this is true with any analytics tool.

Visualization Capabilities

On its own, Excel has grown more powerful over the years in terms of what it can deliver for visualizing analytics. PowerPivot was a nice addition to Microsoft Excel 2010, which added a data modeling experience that is separate from the visualization experience. PowerPivot also leverages an in-memory tabular data model that can handle larger datasets. Microsoft Excel 2013 introduced PowerView, which is an entirely separate user window built into Excel for a crisper dashboard-like user experience. In 2014, Microsoft released Power BI which is a stand-alone visualization product completely outside of Excel with its own pricing, but which introduced several features that broadens the ability to share data views that are managed from a centralized location. Power BI also has a growing user base with a successful community input process that is driving feature enhancements.

Power BI allows users to create and extend third-party plugins, and also has a lot of nice built-in functionality. Analysts can publish directly to a hosted web server, so the entire health system can get access to its data and reports.

A Simple and Inexpensive Alternative

Everyone involved in the healthcare analytics spectrum—data architects, financial analysts, clinicians—needs access to data, clear and comprehensible reporting, creative data visualization, and a way to do all this easily and affordably. Excel delivers in all of these areas with virtually zero cost, no licensing, no additional training, and it can be scaled alongside the Health Catalyst analytics platform. That adds up to a lot of positives with very few side effects for a great return on almost no investment.

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