Untangling the Healthcare Data Web
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Untangling The Healthcare Data Web

Inaccurate provider data is a hidden tax on hospital marketing departments, and a leading cause of referral leakage (when a patient can’t or won’t connect to the provider to which he or she was referred). Confusion about a provider’s identity, credentials or address can be a big turnoff to an otherwise motivated patient. When a provider’s name is wrong, an address is out of date, or a phone is disconnected, patients simply can’t find the doctor they’re looking for.

A poor Internet presence (missing important proof points like professional credentials, reviews), can turn off a prospective patient just as quickly.

In fact, the entire patient experience with your hospital can be tarnished by something as simple as an error or omission of procedural experience. Think about the frustration a patient feels when he or she reads about a doctor’s expertise on a website, only to discover that lack of expertise at the time of booking the appointment or worse, face-to-face in the doctor’s office.

These issues are “hidden” in the sense that they are not immediately detected. You may never know exactly why, only that performance seems lackluster.

How Big is the Problem?

A 2013 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services highlighted the extent of the problem of data accuracy. According to the report, 48% of provider listings in NPPES, and 58% of provider listings in PECOS were found to have some inaccuracies, most commonly addresses.

Although there is no requirement for information in NPPES and PECOS to be consistent, you might logically expect the databases for the same basic information to be identical. Logically, you would be wrong. 97% of provider data that ought to be identical had some inconsistency or inaccuracy.

How Does It Happen?

First, contact information – especially physical address and phone number – is very difficult to manage. It is constantly changing and, by definition, always out of date.

Provider information changes for any number of common reasons:

  • A doctor switches insurances carriers.
  • A practice moves.
  • A partnership dissolves
  • A phone number is changed or taken out of commission.
  • A doctor is added to a hospital/clinic franchise’s list of full-time employees.

As you can imagine from the above list, the first basic problem is that this data itself is subject to human error from neglect, omission, and typographic errors. In other words, the data is a mess.

This already rough data is made worse, however, by the way it’s disseminated. NPPES publishes provider information based on when an NPI number was applied for. That information is in the public domain, so hundreds of websites (some reputable, some not) grab that information and put up small doctor directories.

Then, data aggregators (some reputable, some not) take the NPPES information and mix it together with the lists taken from other websites (scraped or purchased). All of this disparate information is then combined in dozens of permutations across these third party sites.

Sometimes they get it right. The vast majority of times, they don’t. Because the data is transposed, important points of information are easily warped. Dr. David Mitchell, for example, becomes Dr. Mitchell David. Old addresses are mistaken for new, old phone numbers replace new numbers.

Aggregators then sell that screwy data to insurance companies, who combine it with their own internal lists.

In dealing with this already difficult data management hurdle, larger groups and hospitals have the biggest challenge. Since the average hospital employs 134 full-time doctors, that’s 134 unique NPI numbers, each with dozens of data fields that could get corrupted, misrepresenting your brand and spoiling the patient experience.

And, predictably, complaints from doctors and patients hit the hospital marketing department (or IT staff) who were made responsible for tracking provider data citations.

How Can It Be Fixed?

Many hospitals attempt the ‘brute-force’ approach to fixing listings: combing through every major healthcare and business directory (Wellness, Healthgrades, YellowPages, Yelp, DocSpot and Bing to name just a few) and manually adding, fixing and updating the listings for each doctor.

Hospitals that go this route generally end up employing someone full-time as a listings manager. Why full-time? Controlling these listings is like an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. As data is fixed on one site, another automatically updates itself- replacing hand-entered records with whatever data the site deems most relevant.

NPPES does have a tool (https://nppes.cms.hhs.gov/#/) where providers (or hospitals that employ them) can theoretically fix the data at the source. But the process to propagate the data from NPPES is slow, and there’s no real guarantee that all data publishers will abide by the latest data push.

Regrettably, since few providers diligently monitor and correct their NPPES data, there is no ‘source of truth’.

A common fallback solution is to partner with a data aggregator. These companies distribute your doctor’s correct information to publishers, who then update consumer-facing websites or apps.

Publishing agreements between data aggregators and websites vary. The most reputable and largest doctor websites have internal data validation departments that supplement data from aggregators, claims data, and the American Medical Association Masterfile, which logs information on more than 1.4 million physicians, residents and medical students in the US.

But third tier websites lack data integrity capabilities. They also lack the budget to purchase up-to-date records from data aggregators, or the technical staff to do the work. So, even though your hospital may have hired a data aggregator to push your current provider data, there’s no such requirement for a publisher to use that data.

Another solution is working with ‘horizontal players’ that promote your visibility across the web. These agencies are good for quickly getting your providers and brands on certain directories, but they use a shotgun marketing approach – they’ll use the same strategy to promote your hospital they use to promote restaurants, plumbers and antique stores. These firms are mostly aimed at small businesses with a handful of providers at a single location.

Finally, some firms deliver an enterprise-level service to manage hundreds of provider listings across the web. These solutions involve deep data integration, and provide a single point of contact for data quality and synchronization with the core databases. (For example, Doctor.com has exclusive content syndication relationships with several healthcare directories including Healthgrades, and is approved by the HHS/CMS as an EFI Organization.)

Quality and consistency of provider data on the web is one of the hardest problems for hospital marketing departments to solve. Yet making provider data consistent is essential to prevent referral leakage and maximize potential appointments.

While it is virtually impossible to solve manually, hospital organizations can benefit from a combination of manual listing management, data aggregation, and custom solutions that organize the task from a single point of contact.

Ready for a comprehensive diagnosis of your hospital’s data accuracy around the web?  Request a complimentary session with a Healthcare Data Expert here.

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