Healthcare analytics

On Oct. 1, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, became an instant punching bag for politicians on both sides of the aisle when the federal government’s ACA website, which serves the 36 states that opted not to set up their own online health insurance exchange, suffered a disastrous launch. Forget the merits or demerits of the law; the massive number of computer glitches became the story.

Of the 14 states and Washington, D.C., that set up their own websites, many also reported initial technical difficulties, but the problems with the state-run websites are apparently being fixed much quicker than the fed site. The scale of the problem and the number of people trying to access the respective sites obviously play a role in the relative speed of fixes between the fed’s website and the states’ sites, but analytics may have also been a key factor in the states’ quicker recovery.

According to CIO Journal (a Wall Street Journal publication), administers of state insurance marketplaces are not only turning to analytics software to track user progress across sites and identify possible bottlenecks, they are contemplating using analytics to boost sales and compete with private insurance exchanges. Pat Howard, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, tells CIO Journal that eventually “analytics could help the exchange recommend health plans and conduct targeted marketing campaigns.”

Led by Dimitris Bertsimas’ eye-opening plenary, healthcare analytics and applications were popular session topics at the INFORMS Annual Meeting, which only makes sense given the industry is loaded with systems and care-delivery problems that beg for analytical attention. Unfortunately, while the healthcare industry is years behind many other industries when it comes to information technology and deploying analytics, it is somewhat reluctant to catch up. Misaligned incentives among healthcare providers, insurers and patients are key culprits, and the result is an inefficient system with bloated prices that’s resistant to analytical intervention.

What impact the ACA will have on creating more opportunities for analytics applications in healthcare beyond website fixes and selling more insurance policies remains to be seen. For its part, INFORMS has now held two highly successful special-purpose conferences focused on healthcare. Look for more in the future.

Speaking of conferences, I’ll close by acknowledging and thanking INFORMS Director of Meetings Terry Cryan and Sandy Owens for all the help they have given me over many years, from putting together countless conference articles, ads and meetings calendars for OR/MS Today to finding me a room at conference hotels when no vacancies existed.

Besides overseeing the phenomenal growth of both the analytics-oriented meeting in the spring and the annual meeting in the fall, Terry’s finest moment as director might have come in 2005 when she, her staff and INFORMS volunteers led by Conference Chair Jim Cochran miraculously arranged to relocate the annual meeting from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to San Francisco in a matter of days. Sandy, who started working for TIMS (a predecessor of INFORMS) in 1981 and spent the majority of her long career in the Meetings department, handles a wide range of behind-the-scenes responsibilities that contribute to the department’s success.

Terry and Sandy will retire at the end of the year. Like everyone else who was lucky enough to work with them, I will greatly miss them and their expertise, professionalism and kindness.

— Peter Horner,