By: Diane Stirling
Given limited access to information on medical procedure costs and insurance company reimbursements, Americans have long had difficulty assessing the potential cost of their health care options. However, a complex team project administered by School of Information Studies (iSchool) Assistant Professor of Practice Art Thomas has changed that, resulting in a website and new mobile app that make it easier and more convenient for consumers to get the information they need for those decisions.
Thomas has been at the fulcrum of a nearly four-year effort as the project manager for the data-intense, research-driven, multi-partner, public-private effort to de-commercialize health care and insurance rate data and put it into the hands of consumers. He has worked with the New York State Attorney General’s Office and project partner Fair Health, a national, independent, not-for-profit corporation in doing so.
The issue involved complex structuring of a proprietary dataset that Fair Health says is the most comprehensive site of private health care claims in the nation. It currently includes more than 15 billion billed medical and dental procedures performed since 2002 in each of the 500 geographic regions nationwide. The effort’s size and scope, its requirement for front-to-back transparency, its multiple stakeholders and interests, and tight working timeframes created challenging administrative dimensions, Thomas noted, including the coordination of data research by as many as 60 academicians at up to nine leading research universities during the peak intensity of the project in 2011.
On the ground, the project involved reviewing sound statistical principles regarding health care information, recommending solutions, and creating procedural flows for each of the different product sets. Thomas had done a number of projects mixing corporate and academic worlds previously, but “not on this timeframe and not of this intensity,” he said.
His decision to manage the project along three parallel tracks, delegating decision-making to leaders in each area, was crucial to its success and timely completion. Pure research on statistical methods was one thread; creation of the website was another; project administration was the third. Thomas assumed the role of administrator to free the academic researchers from those prohibitive burdens, and the web component was taken on by Associate Professor of Practice Jeffrey Rubin and his iSchool-based company, SIDEARM Sports.
So far, the web site and app efforts have received positive response, allowing consumers to be better informed, Thomas said, a goal which was in line with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s initial concept “to bring these rates into the open, so consumers could have conversations with their doctors about choices and restrictions on their insurance. Up until this point, there hadn’t been a way for consumers to do that,” according to Thomas.
The project initially came to Syracuse University through former Vice Chancellor Deborah Freund, internationally recognized as an expert in this field. Thomas brought his IT management experience to assist Dr. Freund as Project Manager in the first phase of the effort. In this capacity, he handled project design, budgeting and coordination of resources required across the multiple universities in order to deliver the needed official research reports and initial website designs to Fair Health. After coordinating the administration of the project successfully through the first two budget cycles, Thomas was then asked to direct the entire effort when Freund left the university. That was a significant development, he said, because it was the largest health information project the iSchool has managed.
“It was a stretch in that I was put into a leadership role in research, and yet I was not the researcher. I had to be the champion and spokesperson for the project if need be. While I had people around me who could help, in the end, I was indeed the principal investigator, and that was a very, very different role than what I had played before,” Thomas remarked. “Thanks to the University, iSchool Dean Liz Liddy, and Gina [Lee-Glauser], they surrounded me with people that could help. It was very important to them that I felt like I could be supported by the university,” he added.
Work Benefits Students
Thomas said he has learned significantly through the process, and that experience is now benefiting his students. Some of the lessons he now incorporates include “how adaptable project management has to be to meet the needs of unique environments. Every tool that we used to manage the project was uniquely customized, and that was the way it had to be done. That intense customization of the process is something I teach to my classes now.”
The project is now in refinement mode. It concentrates on some of the more unusual statistical methods that are traditional with the industry, trying “to get to the point where we can give a refined opinion as to how to best handle those statistical processes,” the professor explained.
iSchool staff members involved in the effort included Stephen Block, assistant dean for administration and Eileen Allen, research administrator/senior research analyst. Faculty from the iSchool included: Dean Elizabeth Liddy; Rubin of SIDEARM Sports; Howard Turtle, director, Center for Natural Language Processing; Susan Dischiave and David Dischiave, both associate professors of practice. Collaborating from the Maxwell School were Margaret Austin, associate director, Center for Policy Research; and Professor William Horrace, who serves as co-director of research for the project. Also involved were staff members in SU’s Offices of Sponsored Projects and Sponsored Accounting, as well as the University’s Vice President of Research Lee-Glauser. Sean Nicholson, a professor at Cornell University, serves as the Director of Research .
Based at Syracuse University, the Upstate Health Research Network (UHRN) includes researchers from Cornell University, the University of Rochester, SUNY Albany, Buffalo, and Upstate. The University of Illinois, Indiana University, the University of Colorado (Denver) and Arizona State University participate in UHRN as adjunct research institutions. Thomas now continues as the director of the UHRN.
The website is: www.fairhealthconsumer.org, and the new mobile app is called FH Consumer Cost Lookup. The app, a mobile version of the website, is available through Apple's App Store for iOS devices. A version is expected for Android devices soon.