Southern Maine Medical Center Gets Healthier with Data

Southern Maine Medical Center (SMMC) is an award-winning healthcare system. Within the system is a 150-bed, not-for-profit, full-service medical center and multi-specialty physician services group. In this interview, Data Analyst Jonathan Drummey tells us how Tableau helps the medical center improve its own health while improving the health of its patients.

Tableau: How did you find Tableau and what did you think when you found it?
Jonathan: I was the first analyst in the department, with a lot of RNs who had a whole lot of stacks of paper and Excel spreadsheets that they were working with. To help them organize and understand their data, I knew we wanted something more than what Excel could offer. I found Tableau online, downloaded the 14-day trial, and within minutes just knew it was for us. It’s the favorite piece of software I've ever used.

Tableau: What is it that you love about working with Tableau?

The way Tableau approaches data and visualizing data is the way my mind works. What it lets me do is really move at the speed that I can think about things.

Jonathan: The way Tableau approaches data and visualizing data is the way my mind works. So what it lets me do is really move at the speed that I can think about things. I can think about something and within a split second or within a few seconds there it is on the screen for me to see. And that feedback loop being right there and so quickly lets me be incredibly productive.

Tableau: How does Tableau save you time?
Jonathan: In terms of time saved, there's a lot of what I do that would not be possible without Tableau. We have close to 400 physicians that we're tracking each with somewhere between 10 and 20 measures that are being reported on roughly quarterly. We're tracking over 1,500 metrics at this point, which are at a unit level in the hospital; they're at an office level for the physician offices; they're per provider level, and then there's all the data we have on all the patients. Tableau lets us take in all of that data, identify outliers, and help performance improve in the hospital.

Also, Tableau saves me time in that it lets me fail really fast, which is really great because I have a limited amount of time for analysis. Tableau lets me iterate through a lot of different ideas and analyses really quickly to come to a set of insights. Or in cases where I need to report on a specific set of measures, Tableau enables me to have the report the way that we need it to look and get that output really quickly to people. Tableau lets us take in thousands of records each month and aggregate it quarterly or annually to look at individual performance or at an office or group level and compare performance with other providers.

Tableau: What kind of data do you work with?
Jonathan: We have separate electronic health record systems for our inpatient and outpatient services, and there's no kind of master dataset I get out of those. So there are different reports, and I get different little slices of sets of data from each of them. Tableau has been fabulous for being able to incorporate and organize all these different data sources. I use Tableau to clean up that data as well as for the analysis and downstream reporting and delivery.

Tableau: How has it impacted the analysis you deliver?
Jonathan: The quality management department’s view is that we don't own the data. It's really the physicians' data; it's the nurses' data; it's the patients' data. Using Tableau, we're able to turn that data around and get it out to them faster. People are getting to see data that they've only seen once a year and they're seeing it much more often. Maybe it's data they've never gotten to see in an aggregate form before, and they're getting to see aggregates and comparisons. We're able to add more value that we in the quality management department bring to it in terms of our analysis and push that back out to them much more quickly.

Tableau: What are some specific insights Tableau has helped you uncover?
Jonathan: With Medicare, there's value-based purchasing where they're implementing pay for performance and withholding revenues based on certain measures. For example, the number of patients who come in with pneumonia and what kind of treatment that they get within a certain time period of their arrival. So, one of the things we've been able to do with Tableau is analyze each month where we're at with regards to these different numbers, project our gain or loss on this measure. We can identify areas where we're performing and meeting the target and also where we're not meeting the target. That way, we can address it in a timely fashion before the end of the measure. In the case of this particular set of measures, the reporting that we actually get from Medicare is several months to a year after the data. So being able to act on it in a more timely basis lets us actually meet the measure in a better fashion.

Tableau: How has Tableau changed the way you work?
Jonathan: The environment that we're in is one where things are changing a lot, and our hospital and physician practices are getting more integrated as we go along. For patient quality, for safety, for payment we have to monitor more and more metrics and there are new bits of data coming in all the time. Between its blending features and the ease of connecting to different data sources, Tableau lets me pull all that together easily so I can focus more on the analysis piece.

The days that I get to spend more of my day in Tableau, those are the better days. I look forward to the time when I get the dataset ready and I'm able to dive in and look at something. With some of the data, I'm often the first person who has seen the data, and it's kind of like skiing and making first tracks in fresh powder. That’s just really fun to see what comes up on the screen. To be able to turn it around and share that with my coworkers is a really wonderful thing.

Tableau: Was it easy to learn to use Tableau on your own?
Jonathan: I like the software so much I bought a student license and used it at home. I got really active on the Tableau community forums, and used that as a source for other people's visualizations. I saw what they had done with things, and took them on as problem sets to learn things with datasets that I didn't have access to or wouldn't be working with in my day job. That process really rapidly accelerated my own learning curve.

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