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Big data drives demand for more analysts

Hiring managers across the healthcare spectrum are recruiting analysts who can spot actionable trends

David Weldon, Contributor

With the big push toward data collecting and using data to lower costs and improve patient care, healthcare organizations are finding themselves in need of data analysts.

"The focus on quality and consistency of care" is driving the demand, said Kara Chacon, senior corporate recruiter at the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) in Washington, where more than half of the 300-member staff is involved in analytics, research and business intelligence. "It seems like every healthcare organization is looking for an analyst of some type." 

The reasons are simple: healthcare organizations are creating mountains of data. They are looking for ways to identify areas of opportunity to improve quality of care, increase safety of patients, lower operational costs and increase profits. Data analytics provides the tool to turn information into action.

Despite the common use of the term data analyst, this is in fact not a single job role in healthcare, and a typical hospital may need several types of analysts. 

The American Health Information Management Association classifies these professionals into such job roles as healthcare analyst, quality data analyst, business intelligence analyst, care management analyst, decision support system management analyst, clinical data coordinator, operations manager, compliance auditor, director of integrator healthcare management, administrative director of planning and decision support, and many others.  

Depending on which department they work in or what projects they are assigned to, analysts may perform very different duties, and come from different educational and professional backgrounds. How long it takes your organization to acquire one, and how much you will have to pay, is determined by the complexity of those projects and how much they impact hospital operations.

At entry-level and low-level positions, data analysts can help spot trends that physicians can act on in diagnosis and treatment of patients. At mid-level, analysts can help provide strategic insights to run an organization more cheaply and efficiently. At their most advanced level they can lead research efforts that will help combat a range of diseases and lead to medical breakthroughs.

A world-wide reputation for quality care and a selfless mission goes a long way when it comes to recruiting analysts, or any job role in healthcare for that matter. And so, also enjoys an ability to attract more than its share of well-qualified candidates.

St. Jude received approximately 50,000 job applications for all available job openings in 2013,. The hospital, which maintains only one location, has a staff of approximately 3,900.

In the past three years, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. has hired 137 data analysts – half of them in the past year. "Big data is driving a lot of it," according to Deidre Neal, manager of employment at the hospital.  

One of many projects driving that need is the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project – the world's largest and broadest research initiative focused on the genetic origins of pediatric cancer. The project, which launched in 2010, is conducted in collaboration with Washington University in St. Louis, and has sequenced the complete and normal cancer genomes of 700 children with cancer. All other large-scale cancer sequencing efforts done prior to this focused on adult diseases.

In such research efforts, the value that data analysts bring to the table in incalculable, Neal noted. The work simply wouldn't get done. 

It is work like the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project that helps attract the best and the brightest to St. Jude. But it also leads to an evitable challenge.

"We have no trouble getting data analysts here," Neal said. "It is getting them to stay that is more of a challenge. Once they have put in a few years working here, they are very marketable."