Visualization helps Medicaid examine state health trends

The Alabama Medicaid Agency is using a visual analytics tool from SAS that helps analysts quickly find patterns and explore trends in the state's population health data.

The Alabama Medicaid Agency  is looking to data visualization software to help health care decision-makers sort and understand clinical and treatment data on more than 1 million state residents. Using SAS Visual Analytics (VA), the agency can examine data on illnesses, treatments and costs, segmented by population and geography.   

“We had some ability, obviously, to find and utilize data,” agency Medical Director Dr. Robert Moon said. But the agency had difficulty turning that data into graphs, charts and dashboards for decision makers.  “Sometimes with the audiences we interact with, a picture is worth a lot and really helps tell the story.”

The tool from SAS, a business analytics software and services company, lets users sift through any size data set to find patterns and show results in charts, graphs and animations.

“With Visual Analytics, we could make dashboards that could effectively communicate information and provide the decision-makers some ability to dig in and answer some questions of their own,” said Chris McInnish, director of quality analytics at the agency.

“One of our problems is we have more information than we can get our arms around, and this really helps us get that narrowed down, so we can see it and understand it and then communicate it on up,” he added.

The SAS visualization tool also addresses the challenge of keeping data fresh. In the past couple of years, the agency took the management of its data out of third-party hands and moved it back to in-house databases. That made getting to data easier and faster, but presentation was still an issue. McInnish’s goal was to have something that could be built once and easily maintained. So once the agency launched  the visualization app, “then all we had to do was keep the background data up-to-date and make changes as necessary,” he said.

The Adult Health Quality Measures Grant, awarded to the agency by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is paying for much of the work.  Consequently, the agency also uses the tool to study healthcare quality by looking at, for example, what age group uses a certain procedure code or how the Alabama agency compares to its counterparts in other states.

The Medicaid office also created a quality analytics unit to increase its collection and reporting of data for Medicaid-eligible adults. The group collects, analyzes and reports on data from claims, as well as the Real Time Medical Electronic Data Exchange, an electronic patient health care record and quality scoring system, and other sources, Moon said in a press release.

McInnish was preparing to release the first public tool using the SAS VA based on claims analysis. It allows Medicaid analysts to look at chronic conditions and conduct research using procedure and diagnosis codes.

The agency began setting up SAS VA last fall, and started standing up tools in March. It uses existing primary data management tools and migrates them to SAS by creating a data set specifically for a project. “We structure all of our data going into SAS VA specifically for SAS VA,” McInnish said. “We are still a SQL shop, and our data is still stored and managed in SQL.”

Because much of the data is protected health information, the agency keeps its datasets and computing resources behind the agency’s firewall, he said. To use the tool, analysts must be registered in the agency’s system and again specifically for access to SAS VA.

McInnish and another team member are also testing SAS VA on iPads, but for now the work remains on-site.

So far the focus has been on initial projects by the core team, he said, but they’re now trying to build tools that are useful to specific programs. “We’re not building it just to build things,” he said. “As we see a need where this is the right tool, we’re trying to push those tools out and let people have access to it and see how they respond.

“Our theory of change is that if we give people access to information in a way that’s not overwhelming and not too complicated, then they’ll enjoy that, use that and then start coming to us with additional questions that we can respond to.”


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