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Information Technology Professor Mines Data to Improve Healthcare


W. “RP” Raghupathi, Ph.D., has analyzed data from the World Bank to see if there are correlations between a nation’s investment in technology and improvement in its public health.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Storing data is easy. Sorting it into something usable? That’s another story.

W. “RP” Raghupathi, Ph.D., professor of information and communication systems in the Graduate School of Business Administration (GBA), knows that valuable information can be found within the data created daily in industries such as banking and healthcare. Properly analyzed and acted upon, such information can be transformational for a company.

“In airline reservation systems, hotel reservation systems and healthcare, there are millions of records about customers, patients, hospitals and HMOs,” he said. “Computer analytics allow us to apply all kinds of algorithms and modeling techniques to the data set, and then see what kinds of patterns emerge.”

An example of how analytics was used in the healthcare industry—Raghupathi’s area of expertise—is the withdrawal of the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx from the marketplace in 2004.

“Kaiser Permanente was looking at data from patients who used Vioxx for a long period of time. Then, using analytic techniques and other intelligence models, it found a correlation that raised a red flag. That led to more studies, and the drug’s eventual withdrawal by Merck,” he said.

Electronic Health Records, or EHRs, are of particular interest to Raghupathi, because each year there are 60,000 medical errors in hospitals and clinics in the United States. Many such errors could be avoided if doctors and nurses had easy access to patients’ records—a challenge that he has experienced firsthand.

“I was attending a conference in Atlanta in 1997, and I slipped and fractured my left hand, and I’m left-hand dominant. So I went to Emory University Hospital, and they gave me a five-page admission form to fill out,” he said.

“I was living in California at the time, and I thought, ‘I’m sitting here at 11 p.m. and all of my data is in California. I wish there were a way for them to log in and get the data they need, but there isn’t.’ So the nurse helped me.”

Raghupathi said that the new federal healthcare law will bring about 40 million additional people into the healthcare system. That will mean even more data to be analyzed. But access to health records is an issue fraught with competing interests.

“Who owns the data in this distributed environment? Is it the patient who owns the data and has control over it? Or is it the hospital that entered the patient’s admission data? Is it the HMO that approves the bills? Or is it the primary care physician? That’s a major challenge,” he said.

For people who say that their health data should be theirs exclusively, Raghupathi again drew from his own experiences to show how the issue is not that simple.

“Sometimes I want the results of a lab test to be given to the specialist right away. But if I ask them to fax it to the specialist, they’ll say, ‘No, either you pick it up or we’ll mail it to you in three to five days.’ So, right there is time wasted. That data is sitting on the Web in some database, so why not let the pertinent people have access to it?”

With the field of business analytics gaining popularity, Raghupathi helped spearhead an academic initiative that allows students to use IBM software in classes such as “Analytics for Managers.” He also helped organize “Smarter Education: An Era of Opportunity,” a colloquium held last December at Lincoln Center.

“Most companies have gone through the informational phase; they use IT for basic things. And they’ve gone on to the strategic phase for more qualitative types of benefits—customer satisfaction, user satisfaction, etc.,” he said. “But now we see the transformational benefits. The Internet is one example—how it’s transformed brick-and-mortar business into full e-businesses.”

The transformational benefits of IT extend to other areas on which Raghupathi has trained his eye. Along with Sarah Wu, Ph.D., assistant professor of management, he has conducted studies that analyze data from the World Bank to see if there are correlations between a nation’s investment in technology and improvement in its public health.

“We are not saying that by using a computer, your health is going to improve—that’s causality. But countries that use IT seem to have better health, as indicated by certain variables,” he said.

The use of cell phones in rural India and Africa is a good example of creative use of technology. “If a vaccination team is going to visit a village at a certain time, the team will use a cell phone to communicate that to the villagers. So the use of mobile technology is promoting primary healthcare in indirect ways,” he said.

Raghupathi also has examined the role of IT and corporate governance with other faculty, and has shown a correlation between the use of IT and firms’ bottom lines. If companies provide transparency via the Web, then stakeholders feel good and investors have confidence. He advocates companies bringing dedicated technology experts onto their boards.

“There are accounting people and executive pay people; why not somebody who’s tech-savvy and is pushing the firm in the direction of using IT for reporting purposes and communication?” he said. “The operational and strategic aspects of business are there, but academics and the industry have to look at how technology can be used in transformative ways.”


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