What Does a Health Data Analyst Do? How Analysts Help in Healthcare
In today’s world, data is everything—and everywhere. The advent of electronic health records (EHRs) has opened the door for healthcare organizations who want to use this data to improve processes, compare costs and outcomes, and facilitate research. When you add smartphones, wearable fitness trackers and symptom-checker apps, the amount of information that can be examined for patterns and trends is massive.
This new wave of easily gathered and accessible health information is a boon for data analysts looking to apply their skills in healthcare. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the work of a health data analyst, how it compares to other types of data analyst work and what it takes to become one.
What do data analysts do in healthcare?
The role of the health data analyst is to sift through data to find ways to improve healthcare outcomes and control costs. Gathering, interpreting and organizing healthcare data—for example, length of patient stays after certain procedures—is followed by presenting their findings to management and other decision-makers.
After seeing the story the data tells, these decision-makers, whether they are doctors, executives, medical directors or administrators, then go on to make policy, staffing or capital outlay decisions that will improve both the quality of care for patients and the organization’s bottom line.
“A healthcare data analyst in hospital settings would help the hospital executives make decisions,” explains Amy Troutman, head of business operations at Resourceful Compliance.
As an example, Troutman suggests that, by looking at digital patient charts and financial records, a health data analyst could calculate the average time a patient is using a bed and then compare that to the overall cost involved in caring for a patient in that bed. Once presented with these findings, the hospital management can then use this to inform decisions.
Business data analysts and health data analysts: What’s the difference?
“In a business setting, you may say that that printing process is slowing operations down,” Troutman says. “You could look at how you can reduce this through networks or new printers.”
The difference in health data analysis and data analysts that work for businesses is that the big driver of the information being studied comes from people, often very sick or vulnerable people.
“You couldn’t do the same in a hospital with patients,” Troutman adds. “You would have to look at alternative solutions; in which case, you may be collecting data for shift efficiency. You would be looking at presenting the information with patients’ needs and privacy in mind.”
“Being in a care delivery organization gives access to broader and richer data than a non-care delivery setting,” says Nick Mattison, systems director of clinical and quality analytics at Fairview Health Services. “Most other healthcare analysts in insurance companies, for example, only have administrative claims while we have full clinical data sets to work with.”
Health data: A vast resource of patient and clinical data
While health records and patient data are a huge portion of what a data analyst works with in a healthcare setting, that’s not all they factor into their analyses. There are many streams of data that can be used as part of their work.
Mattison adds that health data analysts look at all sorts of data to answer a variety of questions: financial, clinical, quality or safety, to name a few.
“Electronic medical records (EMRs) are our primary sources,” Mattison says. “These typically store data in relational databases that we query with SQL. We often extract the data from these systems and transform them or combine with other datasets to derive insights.”
Mattison offers up examples of questions related to care delivery that a health data analyst might look at.
“For example, you may look into how long operating room cases are running over to predict availability,” Mattison explains. “Or how much growth is occurring in COVID-19 cases to determine capacity needs in the future.” Financial data, along with payer and productivity data, could also be synthesized to present a holistic picture.
What skills do health data analysts need?
Like with any tech role, the work of a health data analyst will require a mix of technical know-how and everyday “soft” skills to be effective. To determine what, specifically, employers are seeking from health data analysts, we reviewed over 6,000 health data analyst job postings to identify some of the most commonly sought-after technical and transferrable skills.
Common technical skills needed for health data analysts:1
- Data analysis and collection
- Microsoft Office® Azure and Excel®
- Data science
Common transferable skills needed for health data analysts:1
- Verbal and written communication skills
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Organizational skills
- Project management
Mattison says that health data analysts must be good at asking questions and solving problems. He adds that those who are well suited to this work tend to be “inquisitive thinkers that have a background understanding of statistics, anatomy, biology or healthcare operations.”
It’s not just a matter of being able to use programming languages or software to manipulate data—you have to understand what that data represents and the “why?” behind an analytical approach.
How do you become a health data analyst?
Unlike some roles in the healthcare field—where there’s generally one set-in-stone educational path—health data analysts can come from a variety of educational backgrounds. One thing that is certain for would-be health data analysts is to earn a degree. Our analysis of health data analyst job postings found that 77 percent were seeking candidates with a Bachelor’s degree at a minimum, and another 10 percent were seeking candidates with a Master’s degree or higher.1 These studies can be focused in a variety of fields, like mathematics, data analytics, biostatistics, computer science or public health, to name a few.
What kinds of organizations hire health data analysts?
A variety of organizations hire health data analysts. The obvious ones are hospitals, health systems, and larger clinics or practice groups, but health insurance companies, healthcare consulting firms and government agencies also have health data analysts on staff.
“Some nonprofit entities have analysts as well,” Mattison says. “But their data sources tend to get less clinical and more administrative, such as administrative claims.”
Forecasting your future
Think you have what it takes to excel as a health data analyst? This is a role that has the potential to have an outsized impact on the future of healthcare, medical practices and community health. If you’re attracted to the notion of number-crunching for a good cause, check out our article on “How to Become a Data Analyst: A Beginner’s Guide.”
1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 6,247 health data analyst job postings from July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021)
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