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The Top Four Skills of an Effective Healthcare Data Analyst

April 13, 2021

Article Summary


As health systems experience more pressure to deliver quality care with limited resources during a pandemic, data analysts play a vital role in helping organizations overcome new COVID-19-induced challenges. Data analysts provide direction about the best way to dissect data, identify areas for improvement, and solve complex problems that stand in the way of better healthcare delivery. However, by developing four specific skills, data analysts can optimize their work and help leaders make sound operational, clinical, and financial decisions:
1. Begin with the end in mind.
2. Focus on problem solving.
3. Master the foundational competencies.
4. Play the data detective.

healthcare data analyst

Data analysts play a critical role in empowering health systems to make changes that drive long-lasting improvement. With big data sets to collate, interpret, and translate, health systems rely on data analysts to transform numbers on a spreadsheet into meaningful insights that lead to change. In 2020, with the unexpected onset of COVID-19, the role of a data analyst has become increasingly fundamental to a health system’s ability to react quickly and effectively to the pandemic.

While data analysts play a vital role in enabling improvement within a health system, they do not always have the tools and support they need. For example, a 2018 survey of data analysts by data science company Kaggle shows they spend the majority of their time cleaning data rather than analyzing it. As a result of overwhelming data support needs—exacerbated by the pandemic due to increased data-sharing and emerging analytic needs—healthcare data analysts spend most of their time on tasks that don’t lead to real care transformation.

Four Skills Set Healthcare Data Analysts Up for Success

Data analysts have many responsibilities, including interpreting large data sets, creating graphs and models, and understanding interoperability. However, this often means data analysts are all-consumed with secondary tasks, making it difficult to focus on their primary goal—assisting organizational leaders in achieving optimal healthcare management.

To unlock data to drive ongoing, meaningful adjustments and quickly respond to market changes, data analysts can stay focused on top-of-license work with robust analytics tools to offload basic responsibilities. Sophisticated data and analytics tools can help cleanse dirty data, optimize data sharing and access, and centralize data into one place (e.g., the Health Catalyst Data Operating System (DOS™)). The value of analytics tools goes beyond the applications because it frees up analysts’ time to focus on improvement and more rapidly identify trends to drive business strategy.

Acquiring the following four skills, on top of having data and analytics support tools in place, will help data analysts perform at the top of their license, avoid getting bogged down by rudimentary tasks, and guide their organizations towards data-driven, meaningful improvement:

#1: Master the Foundational Competencies

Smart healthcare organizations rely on healthcare analytics to guide care improvement and delivery decisions based on data insights. Throughout the process of transforming data into information, data analysts must rely on their foundational competencies to unleash the data within their organization’s analytics platform, a big investment for any health system.

Ensuring data analysts have six specific competencies allows healthcare organizations to generate a return on investment for their data platform and maximize the data within the analytics platform to direct the improvement-oriented changes:

  1. Structured query language (SQL): Communicating and manipulating databases with SQL provides a deeper understanding of the data.
  2. Export, transform, and load (ETL): Aggregating data from disparate sources into the data platform allows for effective data integration.
  3. Data modeling: Modeling data that reflects real-world scenarios results in sustainable processes and workflows.
  4. Data analysis: Critical analysis of the data reveals the most valuable information and insight.
  5. Business intelligence reporting: Translating complex data sets into easy-to-read displays allows all team members—even those who are not well versed in analytics—to use data in decision making.
  6. Tell the story of the visualizations: Piecing together data fragments to tell the bigger story.

#2: Begin with the End in Mind

After data analysts have mastered the foundational skills, knowledge, and experience to manage and analyze data, what takes them to the next level? Data analysts transition from good to great when they keep the end goal in mind throughout an entire project and derive objective information for decision makers along the way.

Data analysts can adopt two principles to begin with the end in mind:

  • Think critically: Critical thinking skills make the difference between answering a question on the surface versus digging deeper to figure out which analysis provides the most value.
  • Build relationships: Building and nurturing relationships with decision makers allows an analyst to delve more deeply into the original inquiry and understand the bigger picture, possibly discovering more context to help achieve the end goal.

#3: Focus on Problem Solving

Rising costs, an increasing focus on population health, alternative payment models, and COVID-19 are a few reasons why healthcare is anything but simple. To manage this complexity, digitization is no longer an option but an imperative. At the heart of a digitized health system lies a need for healthcare data analysts to understand the system’s pressures, so their analyses help leaders develop strategies to improve care delivery and keep facility doors open and profitable. Analysts forecast volume, build dashboards, and more, but their real value lies in their ability to operate with a problem-solving mindset.

Too often, low-level tasks (e.g., building dashboards, training other employees about new technologies, and generating one-off reports) encumber data analysts, leaving little time for problem solving. Although these tasks are part of the job, a data analyst must be proactive in freeing herself from focusing only on low-level work by continually asking herself if she is providing leaders with valuable information that drives change.

Data analysts must use data to understand a health system’s problems from an operational, clinical, and financial angle. With a comprehensive understanding of the problem, the data analyst is prepared to offer greater insights that lead to the right course of resolution.

#4: Play the Data Detective

As data becomes more abundant in healthcare, especially when organizations are emphasizing interoperability to learn more about COVID-19, so does the need for data detectives. A healthcare data analyst assumes the role of data detective by identifying new opportunities, determining how to pursue them, and leveraging data across all initiatives. The data detective pieces together real-world concepts within a database to build accurate representations of a health system’s patient population with data. Then, the data detective analyzes and identifies potential target areas for improvement within the data construct and couples this analysis with a subject matter expert’s viewpoint to decide the best course of action.

Donning the data detective hat includes data analysis, seeking expertise from team members, and critically thinking about possible outcomes or scenarios based on expansive information from across the system to solve small and large problems spanning the organization.

Healthcare Data Analysts Are Critical to Outcomes Improvement

As health systems feel more pressure to improve outcomes with limited resources, respond to COVID-19, and generate revenue on thin margins, data analysts keep health systems on the right course and inform leaders when they take a wrong turn. If data analysts can avoid becoming all consumed with secondary tasks—such as data preparation and management—they can transform data into meaningful information. This information guides leaders to make sound financial and clinical decisions that allow the health system to reach peak operational efficiency, even in the dire times of a pandemic.

Additional Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic? Here are some articles we suggest:

  1. Three Must-Haves for a Successful Healthcare Data Strategy
  2. Healthcare Data Literacy: A Must-Have for Becoming a Data-Driven Organization
  3. Five Practical Steps Towards Healthcare Data Governance
  4. Five Lessons for Building Adaptive Healthcare Data Models that Support Innovation
  5. A Roadmap for Optimizing Clinical Decision Support

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