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HIStalk Interviews Chris Belmont, SVP/CIO, Ochsner Health System

February 26, 2013 Interviews 3 Comments

Chris Belmont is system vice president and CIO of Ochsner Health System of New Orleans, LA.

2-26-2013 5-00-51 PM

Tell me about yourself and the organization.

I joined Ochsner about six years ago as an employee. Prior to that, I worked with them in the vendor world. Ochsner is 10 hospitals and 38 clinics located in southeast Louisiana. I joined Ochsner following Katrina, when we went through our growth. We acquired several hospitals that were abandoned after Katrina and that’s when I came on board.


Can you give me a brief history of what has happened since Katrina in the hospital industry in Louisiana?

Obviously it was devastated. When New Orleans was hit by Katrina, most of the city was under water. Ochsner continued to operate even through the flood and the recovery process. 

Several hospitals, mainly in the Tenet organization — we elected to purchase them and help them recover. We purchased originally three hospitals in 2006. Then we ended up purchasing another hospital that wasn’t Tenet, it was another organization in Baton Rouge. Then we purchased our final Tenet facility over in the Slidell area. which was also devastated by Katrina, in 2010. 

Ochsner used to be just one hospital with a large physician group practice. Following Katrina, we became more of a health system. As you can imagine, we went through a lot of growing pains with the city recovering and at the same time we were trying to grow. It’s been an interesting ride.


The last time HIMSS was in New Orleans, it wasn’t long after Katrina, and while there was recovery in the obvious areas like the French Quarter, a lot of hotels and restaurants didn’t have enough labor and there was still plenty of devastation not far off the beaten track. How would you characterize the state of the recovery in general?

You will see a drastically different New Orleans. It’s much improved. A lot of the infrastructure was repaired following Katrina. Other than the light outage in the Super Bowl, the city’s going strong. A lot of people are moving in. A lot of young folks are deciding to settle in here and start up their professional lives. Things are coming back.

The other interesting thing – and most people don’t know this –is since Katrina, we’ve had two other significant hurricane events. One of which was last summer, in which we also had a great deal of flooding. Not in the New Orleans area, but in some of the outlying areas. We’re still in the bullseye.


Maybe the only good thing to come out of Katrina was that people started pushing for electronic records when they saw manila charts floating down the street. It seemed like that was the point where people started to realize that paper records were vulnerable to any kind of natural disaster.

Yes. And not only the paper charts, but the fact that following Katrina, we couldn’t even get clerical help to locate the charts even if we wanted to on our own file room. Luckily we had our own electronic medical record that was built here by Dr. Witherspoon over the last 20 years. When I talk about EMR adoption, I tell them all you have to do is throw a Category 5 hurricane in your city. It’s amazing how EMR adoption ramps up.

I would say prior to Katrina – I wasn’t here, but I hear our adoption was probably a little bit less than 50 percent. Obviously post-Katrina it shot way up and it stayed there, which put us in a good spot to  tackle the new EMR that we’re implementing now.


Tell me about where you are with Epic.

We started our Epic journey in 2010. Late 2010, we went to the board. We stepped back and said, will the tools we have today support us going forward as we continue to grow and expand and potentially go global? Will they allow us to do some of the things we want to do, like offer EMRs to our community physicians, offer additional services, get into the ACO world? And then some of the bells and whistles around kiosks and portals and so on? 

We just realized the platform we had wasn’t going to make it. So in 2010, we made a decision and moved to Epic, hired about 120 folks, and went live with our first site in December 2011. We’re about 80 percent done. We have five hospitals left, two of which will go live the weekend after HIMSS. Our last site will be going live in July. We’re moving along quite briskly. 

We’re doing the whole thing – revenue cycle, clinicals, everything. It’s been tough, but it’s going really well. It’s just been a lot of change and a lot of healthy disruption to the point where 100 percent of our eligible physicians achieved Meaningful Use in their first year. That’s been a big win for us. We’re very pleased where we are, but we still have a little ways to go, and then the optimization is obviously beginning as well.


What benefits and results have you seen so far?

When we went live, we started monitoring our Meaningful Use metrics — literally on Day One — just because of the way we implemented the system. We hit the vast majority – I think all but one of our metrics – on Day One in the hospital. That was a huge win for us because some of that funding and some of those incentives we were going to use to back our project. That’s been a big win for us.

We have much better visibility of what’s going on in the organization now. We talk about it a lot that Epic sheds a lot of daylight on our processes. That’s been good and bad. We discovered some processes that let’s just say were less than optimal that we’ve had an opportunity to improve. 

We improved a lot of the things in the safety space, too, as far as barcoded med administration. Some of the things we’ve wanted to do, but we just didn’t have the tools to do it. We’re seeing some real strong benefits there. Rev cycle as well — we’re starting to see our gross charges are going up and our ability to manage the rev cycle is in a much better shape than it was under the legacy environment.


It’s an advantage that a homegrown system reflects your processes exactly, but also a bad thing that you aren’t getting challenged by the knowledge a vendor brings to the table having seen how things work in many other hospitals. Did you find that Epic brought a lot of ideas to the table?

Yes. The other problem with the homegrown system is you tend to miss a lot of the little things that are very important, like reports, like analytics. You focus on the feature functionality of the system and you don’t think about all of the surrounding things you need — upgrade utilities, system monitoring tools. Things like that’s not on the top of mind when you’re developing software from the ground up. Bringing that stability has been a huge win for us. 

Then like you said, a lot of the model functionality and a lot of the expertise that’s built into the tool allowed us to address certain areas that we just didn’t get to with our homegrown EMR, like ophthalmology, transplant, dermatology – some of the specialty areas. Ochsner, with an 850-physician group practice, has a lot of those specialties that we just didn’t service well with our Legacy platform. Epic has allowed us to get there.


What kind of data conversion were you able to accomplish from your legacy system to Epic?

Informatica was critical in getting us there. We learned on the first site. We thought it was a good idea to go in there with an empty slate and say, let’s just build it all from scratch and start with a clean slate. Let’s make sure the record’s in good shape. We quickly realized that was a bad idea. Not just in the clinical areas, but in the registration area. 

Then we had to more or less scramble prior to go live and say, OK, let’s move more of that data in. We used Informatica to write a lot of the extracts and then loads. Then we used a lot of the tools that Epic has available. Mainly their HIE tools, interestingly enough, to more or less treat our legacy platforms as a foreign system. 

We applied a lot of the health information exchange technology built into Epic to move the data from one system to the other. That’s actually still working out well today because we still have our legacy platform running and physicians are still practicing over there while we’re finishing the rollout. Informatica was huge in helping us quickly move that data once we discovered we had missed some things.


Will you be using the Informatica platform going forward?

Oh, yes. We use it daily. One of the things that we’ve done is not just move data into Epic, but we have a very large data warehousing initiative that’s been going on for about four years. Luckily it started before Epic. Our plan is that we’ll move all of our legacy platforms in there. 

We use the Informatica tools to do a lot of those ETL — those extract, transform, and load — functions to move that legacy data into our warehouse, with the plan of retiring about 38 different systems sometime around the end of the year when we fully have Epic up and running. 

That’s going to be a big win for us. In fact, we’re targeting about $13 million in operational benefit when we turn off those legacy platforms. Informatica is going to allow us to get there. Most recently, we just purchased Informatica’s Master Data Management tool, which will allow us to do a much better job in managing our master data across the organization. Not just patients, but employees and physicians.


Are you using Epic’s Cogito or are you bypassing that completely and working directly from your own data warehouse?

We’re watching it, but frankly it will be a while – and I would argue never – that we’ll be 100 percent Epic. A lot of the data that we have that Informatica allows us to get our hands on and load into our warehouse is non-Epic data.

For example, we use data directly out of our phone switch. By consolidating our phone switch data along with our Cadence patient scheduling data – again, you’re going to say, “Oh wow, that’s not a revelation” — but we were able to show the operators that when you don’t answer the phone, patients don’t book appointments. You’re going to say, “Uh, of course, duh,” but the reality is we weren’t watching it that closely. Now we’re watching it on a daily basis and we’re monitoring and making adjustments along the way. 

We’re correlating a lot of data, not just from Epic, but I think right now we have like 25 different systems that we’re running through Informatica and into our warehouse. The gold nuggets that are coming out of that data are just tremendous.


Tell me more about that. Everybody’s interested or talking at least about analytics and business intelligence, and Epic itself throws out a ton of information. What are some of the things that you think you’ll be able do on the basis of what you learn from your data warehouse?

We do a lot of things. Provider productivity. We’re looking at kind of RVU activity in real time, watching physician productivity but balancing that against the scheduling. We’re looking at labor, so we probably improved our labor performance several million dollars a year just by watching – almost like an acuity model if you think about it. We flex our labor based on patient volumes. We load our productivity data, we load our time and attendance data so we know who actually punched in yesterday. Then we load our patient volume data.

We consolidate that and have that in front of the operators by ten o’clock every morning. Then they adjust their schedules for the rest of the week to get back onto their labor target. That’s been a huge success for us. We’ve all but eliminated our agency because of those kind of initiatives. Then we have several others, quality and other dashboarding things as well.


What are you seeing for the future as far as population health management or accountable care arrangements?

We’re using it for our HCCs, for our Hierarchical Condition Categories. We’ve been using the data warehouse and using the tools within Epic to do a much better job, and that’s showing huge success. 

With ACOs, we’ve worked it out with two of our biggest payers that they provide all of the claims data for us. Now that we’re one of the ACOs that was approved for this year, we’re getting outside information on the population that we’re watching. I think we’re monitoring about 28,000 lives. By taking that payer information and then using the Informatica tools to get it into our warehouse, we’re able to look at our population much better. We started that last year and we didn’t even get approved to start our ACO until January of this year. We’re hitting the ground running with it.


That’s pretty cool to be able to get claims data and then merge it with your own internal data. How will you use the information you’re getting and some examples of how you’ll manage those patients based on all of this information you have?

We’re going to manage readmissions. If one of our members that we’re responsible for is admitted, even at another hospital, we won’t know that. But if they’re in our claims files, we’ll know that they were readmitted, so we can watch those readmissions.

The other thing that is a direct impact is managing outside provider expense. Our physicians may write an order, but the patient may elect to go somewhere else — a non-Ochsner clinic or a non-Ochsner facility — and have the services rendered. We have a little bit better visibility of those patients if they go elsewhere. That’s been a huge win for us. There’s a lot of cost that leaves the organization for not only our covered patients, our capitated patients, but even some of our employees.


What are the biggest challenges and opportunities that you see both within the health system as a whole and in your department?

I think it’s going to be, how do we do more with the data we have? I think the EMR and the implementation days — we are assuming all of those are going to go well and they are going well. I think that ability to predict the future is going to be important as we try to drive down costs, drive up quality, manage patient safety, manage more of a population. 

Having that data in a format that’s easily, quickly, and very accessible is going to be key. Gone are the days where you can throw an army of analysts in a room and say, “Give me this report” and you wait three weeks and they give you something that’s less than optimal. I think the days of, “Tell me what I need to know before I even know that I need to know it” — I think those are the days that we’re looking forward to. With the tools we have with partners like Informatica with their tools, I think we can achieve it.

There’s no lack of data. We’re approaching two billion rows of data, which in some industries is small, but for us, that’s a pretty significant amount of data. We really think we can move the needle on a lot of metrics just by supporting it and monitoring it through the data we have.

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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Great interview – it’s worth noting that Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas will keynote at HIMSS on Monday, March 4, from 8-9:30 a.m. Should provide some good talking points at HISTalkapalooza.

  2. Great interview, if anyone would to speak with Ochscner directly. Jonathan Stevens, Director of Analytics and Data Management will be in Booth 5005 (Informatica) during HIMSS. He’s happy to answer questions and share lessons learned.

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