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Data analytics, info sharing vital to HHS nominee’s approach

By Kyle Murphy, PhD

Sylvia Mathews Burwell is a well-respected figure on the Hill based on the opening remarks of several senators during her confirmation hearing to become the successor to the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

As Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the United States Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions explained during his introductory remarks, Burwell was unanimously confirmed as the Director of the White Office of Management and Budget by a vote of 96-0.

Although many of the questions from committee members that focused repeatedly on the Accountable Care Act and the need for reforms rather than Burwell’s credentials for heading up HHS, the hearing did provide insight into her approach to leadership that places a heavy emphasis on data, analytics, and collaboration — a philosophy noted had to two fundamental parts: transparency and accuracy.

In response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about how successful demonstration of bundled payments should be expanded across the country, Burwell first touched on the importance of data in her work:

With regard to my philosophy, it’s important to have things be data-based. Having had the opportunities to do grant-making in my other roles where one sees and creates models, what you want to do is you want to find the models — there are conditions with regard to which are the most successful and then which are the most likely to scale — because that’s what we need across the nation. You have to consider both questions when considering what you would scale because you want to do is get the largest impact you can. That impact is a combination of both what the measures are of success, but it’s also your ability to make it go broadly across the nation. That’s how I think about that.

Questions from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D­-MD) about breaking down organizational silos and fragmentation in way of interagency collaboration, Burwell touched on the role data and analytics could play in finding rational solutions to the problems facing HHS and its several departments:

First, I believe in any organization you need to start with setting goals, defining roles and responsibilities, and a part of that is an analytical process that includes both listening as well as analytics and data. That’s the first step. Another step is building strong teams and empowering them and giving them the tools to succeed. That’s the second part. The third part I believe is the part of thinking through when you need to drive with analytics and when you need to understanding that there’s emotion because in leading large organizations, there is sometimes how people perceive and whether it’s in an organization or an issue. The perception is their reality, so with analytics you need to understand that if people believe that, how you drive for change.

What ultimately came through Burwell’s testimony was the potential for data and analytics to support the transition from volume to value in healthcare if they are properly implemented. In response to questions from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) about care coordination potentially leading to an environment that does not promote competition, Burwell emphasized the need for a balanced approach:

In terms of philosophy about that … is the issue of balance and thinking about what are the elements that need coordination — in terms of is it information sharing, what is it that creates that level of coordination — and at the same time promoting competition, things like the co-op and other things. How do you get to the key element that is causing the delivery system efficiency? Is it the fact that it is a single provider or is it the fact that it is a standardized approach and information? One of the ways you work to get that balance right is by trying to understand as clearly as possible what is driving the change you’re getting both in terms of quality and price.

On the surface, Burwell’s data-driven approach is similar to the evidence-based medicine practiced by physicians. Given her appreciation her belief in the importance of data, analysis, and sharing, she is likely to find herself respected by members of the healthcare community.

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