Pamela Peele, PhD, wants to get patients out of emergency rooms.

And she’s relying on vast amounts of data and advanced analytics to do it.

As chief analytics officer of both the UPMC Health Plan and UPMC Enterprises, Dr. Peele is blending her expertise in economics, game theory, and clinical health care to develop predictive models that will prompt medical staff to intervene – proactively – with those patients who are most likely to require emergency room treatment.

“If we can predict which patients have the highest probability of requiring service in an emergency room or urgent care clinic, we can reach out to help them before that happens,” explains Dr. Peele, who early in her career spent 13 years as a neurodiagnostic lab technician.

Using predictive analytics to identify at-risk patients is one of many projects UPMC has undertaken that make use of the enormous quantities of patient and consumer data at its disposal.

The overarching goal? To completely transform the patient experience by leveraging Big Data.

Treatment via Technology

UPMC – a longtime trailblazer in electronic health records (EHR) implementation and data-driven technologies – is developing groundbreaking uses of big data, analytics, and IT to improve the health care experience for physicians, staff, and – especially – patients. With easier-than-ever access to medical data and resources, UPMC patients and doctors are enjoying new ways to communicate to treat illnesses.

And those bold initiatives have garnered the attention of some of the world’s leading technology companies. Another project underway is UPMC’s $2B investment to build three digitally connected specialty hospitals that will offer next-generation treatments in patient-focused, technology-enhanced settings unique to health care.

UPMC has entered into a strategic research partnership with Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT initiative to develop these futuristic hospitals, which will incorporate the latest cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and research innovations. The plan is to “apply technology in ways that will transform what today is often a disjointed and needlessly complex (patient) experience,” said Jeffrey A. Romoff, president and CEO of UPMC.

Data’s Key Role in Battling Chronic Diseases

Another significant reason for UPMC’s focus on data-driven approaches is the growing chronic disease crisis in the U.S. According to Diane Holder, executive vice president, UPMC, president of the UPMC Insurance Services Division, and president and CEO of UPMC Health Plan, about 75 percent of health care costs are driven by chronic disease.

“If we could eliminate just three risk factors – poor diet, inactivity, and smoking – we could reduce heart disease and diabetes by 80 percent, and cancer by 40 percent,” says Ms. Holder. “And the answer is probably in your pocket – a smartphone.”

UPMC has implemented several mobile-based tools (and is testing several others) that are automatically triggered when clinical and claims data is loaded into the EHR system. Several smartphone apps are designed to prompt behavioral change, improve medication management, and encourage the use of convenient telemedicine visits.

Odyssey, for example, is an app powered by content from the UPMC Lifestyle Improvement Programs. It presents information on stress management, weight loss, and smoking cessation in a light, user-friendly, and interactive fashion.

Like the “digital hospitals” project, many of these programs are introducing unconventional approaches to health care. One is a project that applies natural language processing to analyze hundreds of thousands of notes clinicians enter into patients’ health records. Detailed analysis reveals that certain words found in clinical notes – such as “mother” or “WW” (for wheeled walker) – can help predict the likelihood of subsequent patient interactions. And, as noted earlier, they can prompt proactive outreach to patients.

“By seeing how millions of pieces of information are related, we are learning things we would never have known in the past,” Dr. Peele notes. “Data is making us clairvoyant.”

These and numerous other data-oriented initiatives are designed with one result in mind: To produce better patient outcomes.

“We want our Health Plan members, and all patients at our facilities, to spend as little time as possible consuming health care,” adds Dr. Peele. “And to be as healthy as they possibly can.”