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After two decades of building expertise, hospital ahead of the game in health-care data management and deployment

‘Data at their fingertips’: The Ottawa Hospital pioneers advanced big-data analytics to improve patient care

After two decades of building expertise, hospital ahead of the game in health-care data management and deployment

The Ottawa Hospital aims to make everyone across the health-care spectrum more ‘data aware,’ with greater consciousness of technology and how it can be applied.

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An important goal for hospitals is improved care. Delivering it in a way that is safe and appropriate for patients – as well as effective and useful for workers in the health system – is especially critical.

For Dr. Alan Forster, executive vice-president and chief innovation and quality officer at The Ottawa Hospital, and Deanna Rothwell, its director of analytics, harnessing digital innovation is key to personalizing treatment, advancing research and streamlining operations.

“We want more patients to get excellent care,” says Dr. Forster, a medical doctor, epidemiologist and informatician who is also a scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, as well as a professor at the University of Ottawa. He arrived at the hospital 21 years ago, from Harvard University, with a mission to use cutting-edge technology – including big data – to improve the patient experience.

Dr. Alan Forster, executive vice-president and chief innovation and quality officer at The Ottawa Hospital.supplied

He was attracted to The Ottawa Hospital because it was committed to reorienting around patient safety and quality of care. And in the two decades since his arrival, the hospital has been ahead of the game when it comes to its use of health-care data. Now, with a goal to become the most technologically advanced hospital in the country, it has ambitious plans to deploy one of the most advanced data-analytics platforms in Canada, if not the world.

“Data helps us to know what’s working, identifies where the gaps are and develops solutions to improve,” says Dr. Forster, noting that health-care data is generated from a wide range of sources, from medical records and staff schedules to wellness apps and wearable technologies.

When the Ottawa native first arrived back in Canada, he found that health-care systems had limited ability to collect, store or share information. With the full backing of the hospital’s leadership, he and his team started to build an unprecedented warehouse to bring this data together. The first phase was to build a data hub for health researchers. The second was to use the system to support quality improvement, transitioning it to a hospital-management tool, streamlining and adding elements to make the data more accessible.

Deanna Rothwell, director of analytics at The Ottawa Hospital.supplied

The third phase was to implement a new digital health information system, called Epic, which is a digital platform supporting almost all the functions required to care for patients.

The fourth and current phase is to bring in a platform, known as MDClone, to securely store, organize, and access patient records while maintaining patient privacy. It uses synthetic data, with no personal patient details, making data even more widely available.

This “fake” patient data behaves and has the same characteristics as real data, showing trends and statistical patterns that can influence or inform future care and determine the causes of problems that need to be solved.

Getting access to and using data is especially important. That’s where a team led by Rothwell comes in: supporting, training and educating people across the institution to use data “to tell a story that’s going to help them make decisions,” she says.

“The demand for data is growing exponentially,” adds Rothwell, who joined the hospital in 2008 from a position at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. She notes that the use of data at the hospital has gone from an ad-hoc situation where people need to seek help from a central data team every time to a system where people can explore the data themselves.

“It’s all about building that capacity and broadening it,” explains Rothwell. “Through MDClone’s ‘self-serve’ environment, people can ask any data question they want at any time, without needing the guidance of the analytics team. It’s data at their fingertips.”

More than 250 staff have already been trained on how to access and use the data to drive results – for both for the patient and the hospital. For example, if a care provider is trying to reduce anemia in patients undergoing surgery, data can be used to better understand anemia rates, long- and short-term outcomes and potential complications while in hospital.

Access to this information helps inform care and improve patient outcomes. Dr. Forster says it’s important to have access to quality information “so we can actually learn how to make the system better.” Big data promises to help lower costs, lead to earlier diagnoses and improved outcomes, prevent disease, accelerate research and discovery, and reduce medical errors and adverse outcomes.

The use of data at the hospital has gone from an ad-hoc situation where people need to seek help from a central data team every time to a system where people can explore the data themselves.

The Ottawa Hospital sees health-care collaboration, research, and innovation “as a continuum,” he says, encouraging discoveries that “get implemented in real-world settings.”

The coming $2.8-billion redevelopment of the century-old Civic Campus will include a new 2.5-million-square-foot health-care and research facility. Rothwell says her team has already been involved in its design, for example, using population data to project the patient services that will be required, and figuring out how to improve the flow of patients in the new emergency department to avoid blockages.

“The patient care there is going to be amazing,” she says.

Dr. Forster notes that such solutions are examples of “people getting access to information and using it,” which can go beyond short-term problems. “That drives improvements in the quality of the data but more importantly leads to improvements in how we care for people. It all goes together.”

Building capacity to use data is especially critical as there are calls for a national health-care data strategy and infrastructure in Canada, he points out. The aim is to create an “open innovation platform” to test ideas in a safe, regulated environment. “We have to open minds to new ways of doing things.”

Rothwell thinks that in the future, everyone across the health-care spectrum will be more “data aware,” with greater consciousness of technology and how it can be applied. “People will understand their role not only in using data but creating that data in the first place.”

Dr. Forster expects that data will be used to develop tools that “help people live healthier and more fulfilling lives even when experiencing an illness. Our ability to connect with patients and help empower them will expand in ways we haven’t even dreamt of yet.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with The Ottawa Hospital. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.