Demand for data analysts at record levels

The demand for data analysts has been growing dramatically in the past two years, and perhaps nowhere is the need greater than in healthcare.

"It seems like every healthcare organization is looking for an analyst of some type," Kara Chacon, senior corporate recruiter at the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) in Washington, told FierceCIO.

Chacon counts herself among the always-active seekers. As a healthcare accreditation agency, more than half of the NCQA's 300-member staff is involved with analytics, research and business intelligence. Job titles range from healthcare analyst, to senior analyst, to research lead.

"We are in the business of analyzing, researching and measuring healthcare quality and reporting on it," Chacon says. "Our biggest data set--which we've been doing for 25 years--is called the Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS). Health [insurance] plans use this as a set of measures to make sure they are giving quality care to their members."

"We also do a lot of clinical evaluations," Chacon explains. "We have a program called the Patient-Centered Medical Home [PCMH]. This is a voluntary process that primary care physicians can apply to for the evaluation of their practice--to make sure it's patient-centered; to make sure that they are having care coordination; that they are using health information technology and reducing costs. We have the largest PCMH health certification program in the country."

A need for statistical, communication, and healthcare skills

All of this requires an enormous amount of data analysis, and a staff that is not only versed in research methodologies, metrics and measures, but also has an understanding of the issues at play in healthcare.

"Typically our hires come from policy research backgrounds," according to Chacon. "We hire individuals that are coming directly out of the healthcare sector--former nurses or individuals that have gone through medical-type schooling. We are not just looking for data scientists. We really want to have someone with background in the healthcare field."

The majority of new hires at NCQA are entry level to mid-level. To a lesser degree the agency uses veteran analysts that are involved in leading research projects.

"The most entry level is analyst level--a standard healthcare analyst," Chacon explains. "I'm looking for someone who is coming in with a bachelor's degree and a couple of years of experience in the workforce in a healthcare setting. Usually we're looking for a [former job] setting involving policy, research or an administration focus, not necessarily in direct service or care of patients. At that level recent master's degree graduates also quality, if they have a master's degree in healthcare policy, healthcare administration or a related field to that, and some internship experience."

At the senior analyst level the NCQA definitely expects a job candidate to have a master's degree, along with work experience in managing projects, information technology policies, and some experience with the creation of performance measures or metrics. "And that is for our research team," Chacon explains.

"For our delivery teams we're looking for individuals that may have worked on a [major] survey--either our survey or another organization's surveys--within a healthcare system or setting, whether in an insurance company or a physician's office."

A data analyst discusses her trade

Confirming the need for some sort of healthcare background is Rachael Foust, a senior data analyst at Kaiser Permanente. Foust was recently profiled in the blog After College, where she discussed her experience of returning to school to get a master's degree in public health, completing an internship at Kaiser Permanente, and then landing her current job.

"I wanted to work in the healthcare field and I wanted to be involved in the strategy side of it, e.g. how can we improve this hospital performance metric, how will HCR affect membership, etc.," Foust said in the blog post.

"For me, that involves pulling data to help support why we're doing a particular strategy," Foust continued. "For example we might look at membership for the local markets team in California to see if it's increasing or decreasing and trying to figure out why. We try to identify different patterns of trends that will be put together in presentations to the upper management. I'm not normally involved in the presenting, but if it's an informal meeting I'll sometimes go along so I can answer questions about the methodology and how we went about collecting data."

Despite the growing demand for data analysts, not only in healthcare but in a variety of industries, the NCQA is fortunate to be ahead of the demand curve.

"We receive a lot of both solicited and unsolicited applications. We're seeing an ability to have the pick of who we need for any given analytical position," Chacon notes. "Naturally, the more specialized the role is the fewer candidates we see, but we have not lacked for hiring."

As noted earlier, there are three basic analyst roles that the NCQA hires for. But what about career paths beyond that?

"It depends on their areas of interest within our research groups," Chacon explains. "In some areas it would be taking on a more senior research role--whether they have an interest in earning a PhD and being a research scientist. In other areas it could be managing projects, departments, teams or programs, or working on more strategy-focused activities."

The right balance of hard and soft skills

It's a similar story at the North Carolina Quality Center, or NCQC, which conducts projects for hospitals to improve patient outcomes, such as reducing infection rates, reducing readmissions, or improving patient satisfaction.

As part of that work, NCQC collects and reports on quality indicators; including trend graphs showing progress and comparison data. NCQC notes that it also maintains a variety of statewide report cards on hospital and health quality.

NCQC also hires a lot of data analysts, and a recent job placement for a healthcare data analyst noted that the "primary responsibility is to analyze hospital and healthcare data for internal use, for reporting to hospitals, and for statewide reports. This job requires a combination of 'hard skills' in data analytics and 'soft skills' interfacing with project teams at NCQC and hospital representatives."

Advice to recruiters and job candidates

Chacon has advice both to organizations that are looking for data analysts and to individual analysts on how to best succeed.

For employers, "First they need to identify what they are trying to have that team do: 'This is what we need analyzed,' and determining what the skills sets are needed for that," Chacon explains. "Then, they need to find individuals to lead those initiatives and potentially implement those initiatives. I came into NCQA with that infrastructure already in place but I've seen a lot of growth. We couldn't do that without first knowing what we wanted to analyze."

For the job seeker, "Read the job description and tailor your resume to highlight the job experience that is most relevant to the qualifications they're seeking. Bring that to the forefront, making it easier for your resume to stand out as they're reading through them."

As to personal qualities, Chacon says "Passion first and foremast for the content they will be working on. Some people want to join the healthcare industry because they think it's the thing to do and they don't really have the interest in the research and why policies are created the way they are or what policies that go into effect may influence quality. The passion needs to be there."

For more:
- check out the After College profile

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