The Missing Ingredient in Healthcare Analytics: The Executive Sponsor

December 20, 2018

Article Summary

Despite the complexity of healthcare analytics, one key strategy for effective, sustainable analytics stands out: designating an executive sponsor to oversee the program. This sponsor is a C-suite level leader who’s committed to championing analytics throughout the organization and has the influence and relationships to drive widespread outcomes improvement.

Healthcare executives can use four criteria to identify a great executive sponsor for their analytics programs:

1. Have a single accountable leader.
2. Find a sponsor with passion for and knowledge about data.
3. Choose organizational clout and a vision for analytics over a specific title.
4. Build a partnership with the CIO.

healthcare analytics program

The old saying in healthcare that organizations are data rich and information poor has never been truer than it is today. The chasm is growing between those organizations that are effectively leveraging data as a strategic asset and those that are merely generating more and more data. The latter are also likely perpetuating more analytic point solutions yet failing to harness data to strategically transform the organization in a lasting and impactful way.

While any number of dynamics play into the data-rich, information-poor conundrum, the experiences of executives across the healthcare industry reveal a key strategy in righting the balance between having data and distilling critical insights from the data: executive sponsorship for the healthcare analytics program. This strategy involves identifying the right executive sponsor, at the right level in the organization, to provide oversight of an enterprise data management and analytics program.

Strong Executive Sponsorship for a Healthcare Analytics Program Correlates One to One with Success

In a complex environment like healthcare, identifying the key issues that spell out doom for an enterprise program are never straightforward, but understanding them is critical to program-level success. In the current state of the healthcare industry, there appears to be a strong correlation between identifying the right executive-level sponsor and the level of success the analytics program enjoys across the enterprise. Identifying the right corporate C-suite executive to sponsor the efforts of the chief analytics officer (CAO)/chief data officer (CDO) is nearly as instrumental in program-level success as the amount of capital and operating resources invested into the program itself.

At one of my former organizations, the executive responsible for system strategy and planning (a member of the corporate C-suite team) functioned as the executive sponsor for the enterprise data management and analytics program. The CDO directly reported to this executive. Both the executive sponsor and CDO were ardent supporters and evangelists for the role data played in the strategic transformation of the organization. This organization has experienced significant levels of clinical outcomes improvement:

  • Reduced mortality rates in patients with severe sepsis who were admitted into the ICU from the ED from 20.8 percent to 8.7 percent.
  • Decreased the number of blood transfusions by 12,000 during a four-year period, eliminating $3,000,000 in unnecessary cost.

Four Elements of a Great Executive Sponsor

Healthcare executives can use four criteria to identify a great C-suite level executive sponsor for their enterprise analytics program:

1. Choose a Single Accountable Leader

To promote and sustain successful enterprise analytics, organizations must designate one, and only one, C-suite level executive as the analytics program sponsor, as opposed to relegating this critical role lower in the organization or attempting sponsorship by committee. As with any initiative of strategic enterprise importance, there must be a single, accountable leader at the right level in the organization to own the successful outcome of the enterprise analytics program. The right sponsor will exponentially increase the odds for achieving a highly successful, sustainable program.

The executive doesn’t require a specific C-level title; the chief physician officer, chief strategy officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer, etc., can all potentially fill the executive sponsor role. The specific title is far less important than identifying the right individual (see criteria number two below for traits of the right individual). In addition, the executive sponsor doesn’t necessarily need to be a direct report to the CEO; however, this individual should be a direct member of the corporate C-suite team with a seat at the executive table.

2. Find a Sponsor with Passion for and Knowledge About Data

The most successful analytics programs have a top company executive accountable for analytics efforts who is passionate and knowledgeable about the strategic importance of analyzing data. The executive doesn’t need a comprehensive understanding of analytical methodologies and processes or the tools and infrastructure that support the program (that’s the role of the CAO, CDO, or the head of the program). In the rare case that the CAO is a direct member of the corporate C-suite team, she serves as both the executive sponsor and the executive with subject matter experience to execute the program (e.g., responsible and accountable in the RACI model for project success). Either way, the C-suite level executive sponsor must have significant credibility and a strong relationship with the other top-level executives to keep them engaged and supportive of the analytics program.

3. Look Beyond Title to Ensure the Executive Sponsor Has the Clout and Vision for Analytics

In my experience, a number of organizations seem, as default, to have the head of analytics (i.e., CAO or CDO) report to the CIO. After all, the analytics program and the CAO role itself is inherently technical in nature and deals primarily with information, which, not coincidentally, is the same “I” as found in the title CIO. This reporting relationship is only effective when the CIO has the knowledge, passion, and organizational clout described above to effectively function as the executive sponsor. Unfortunately, a CIO who isn’t a highly engaged sponsor, a full member of the C-suite team, or effective in promoting the program will likely be a significant impairment to the long-term vitality and viability of the analytics program.

4. Build a Partnership with the CIO

In situations where the CIO doesn’t directly function in the role of the executive sponsor, extra efforts by both the executive sponsor and the CAO/CDO to engage the CIO in the overall program success are critical. A non-supportive CIO can almost single-handedly stifle the enterprise analytics program’s ability to achieve high levels of success. The executive sponsor must partner with the CIO to pursue a balanced approach that allows for the massive unleashing of data needed to transform the organization, while ensuring implementation of effective controls (i.e., governance, policies, processes, and technologies) to protect data and information.

Prioritize the Executive Sponsor

A highly effective analytics program relies on the right executive sponsor at the helm—a C-suite level sponsor who fully understands the vision and the potential for enterprise analytics and has the commitment, influence, and relationships to drive an enterprise-wide analytics and outcomes improvement program. The program must span clinical, operations, and administrative functions.

This executive sponsor also needs support. In the best organizations, an executive governance structure ensures that other key executives help drive the analytics program forward and remain accountable for results and improvements in their respective functions.

Additional Reading

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

  1. Transforming Healthcare Analytics: Five Critical Steps
  2. The Number One Secret of Highly Effective Healthcare Data Analysts
  3. Healthcare Analytics Platform: DOS Delivers the 7 Essential Components

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