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Author's profile photo Juergen Mueller

Healthcare, Data, and Coping with COVID: A Candid Talk with Parkland Hospital

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many organizations into uncharted territory, straining IT and business resources like never before.


Scott Harrison and Clay Townsend, Chief Data Officer and Director of Enterprise Data Services respectively at Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, Texas—a community public health system with the busiest emergency department in the US—recently sat down with me for a virtual conversation about the hospital’s use of SAP’s Business Technology Platform. We discussed Parkland’s approach to technology, their commitment to community, and how readying the hospital to effectively cope with the pandemic has highlighted the importance of agile digital landscapes and strong collaborative relationships, both within an organization and with technology partners like SAP.


Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To hear the conversation, click here (at 3:20).


Juergen Mueller: Can you tell me a little about Parkland and how you’ve been confronting the challenges raised by COVID-19?


Scott Harrison: With over 240,000 ER visits each year, Parkland cares for the needy and the underserved patients of our county. The COVID-19 pandemic has strained our resources, with normally heavy patient volumes growing exponentially overnight. To tackle the issues, our data science team and clinical staff established a cross-functional dialogue to thoroughly understand the gaps that needed to be filled.


Clay Townsend: We began fielding calls early on about operational capacity concerns with the hospital’s call center and the drive-thru COVID testing labs. Needing to glean actionable insights, we quickly set up livestreams to observe various locations—arrivals, testing sites, call centers—around Parkland. The data we gathered helped inform available options to combat this surge in patients.


Juergen Mueller: It’s great to see that you were able to react so quickly. My takeaway, and this is where I tend to see projects work very well, is that you applied a design thinking approach, which included input from your users. I assume you had some of the infrastructure in place prior to the pandemic. Could you tell us about Parkland’s digitization journey?

Clay Townsend: We expanded our technology landscape soon after I joined Parkland in 2014 and pursued a data virtualization platform, which included Hadoop and the SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP)—the latter initially as a sidecar—to retrieve and manipulate the mountains of data available to the hospital. Once the pandemic was upon us, we needed to urgently pivot our technical landscape and capabilities.


With only two weeks to meet our new COVID-19 obligations, we tapped into BTP technologies to process our data records and created an intuitive dashboard interface to visualize and drill down on the data. In no time at all, we were querying data sets in real-time—I could answer questions quickly, without having to write and output new reports. This swiftly led to moving this sidecar environment to our centralized data warehouse.


Today we’re running a COVID-19 symptom checker self-service tool for patients who require initial screening for the virus, an inventory tracker for critical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), and an executive command center dashboard for an overview of the hospital’s operations at any given moment, including bed/patient capacity planning, a model for surge prediction, contact tracing, and more.


Our first trial was up in a week, and in production within two weeks. As a point of reference, we spent six months on a previous build in 2015 for a surgical intensive care unit. It’s been really exciting to see how far we’ve come. The SAP Business Technology Platform has been a game changer for our team, for the hospital and the community.


Juergen Mueller: This is very exciting to hear. You mention creating value from data, which is the goal of the Business Technology Platform. How did you experience the interplay of the platform’s different technologies?

Scott Harrison: Our learning curve is ramping up, and today we are studying heat maps to locate areas most in need of testing. There are so many opportunities to repurpose what we’ve created after COVID-19 is over. For instance, we can reuse the symptom self-checker to help patients manage conditions like diabetes.


With data coming from a variety of places, but stored in one location, quality controls were easily added to give our distributed analytics groups access so that they can drive decision making at the business level without working through the IT department. We’ve got really strong clinical leaders at Parkland who acknowledge the value of data and understand the power of making very informed decisions. Having integrated, end-to-end seamless access to data is driving the hospital’s future.


Clay Townsend: When I first came to Parkland, it took me over a week to access one database. Now I can provision access to all data sets at Parkland in minutes. And, because the agile technical ‘plumbing’ is available, the decentralized groups Scott just mentioned can easily, and securely, access the BTP to produce quality data models and next-generation analytics. It’s very powerful.


Juergen Mueller: As one of the top-ranked hospitals in the world, what can others learn from your journey?


Scott Harrison: That you don’t need teams of 50 or 80 or 100 developers to make a significant impact. Our team is very lean. We accomplish advanced technical projects with less than half or even a third of the staff employed at similar organizations. Which speaks partly to the ease of technology enablement provided by the Business Technology Platform.


Clay Townsend: Build up a collection of skills and put agile technology in place. So when something like COVID-19 comes along, you can react to changes in the business much more quickly.


Scott Harrison: Parkland wants to be the benchmark for the healthcare community. The more healthcare organizations that can evolve their analytics, the more we can combat diseases like COVID, diabetes, and others that have devastating impacts on our communities.


Juergen Mueller: Many organizations are looking to create the kind of digital transformation that you have accomplished to such great effect at Parkland. What advice would you give them?


Clay Townsend: I think it’s important, first of all, to identify what you are trying to measure. You also need a centralized library of data sources within an agile environment that can help extend applications and processes and improve collaboration. If you can’t access the data, if you can’t produce the KPIs, I don’t see how you can move forward. Data virtualization has been around for a while, but because the capability is established as a core function of SAP HANA, data access is made easier and data movement is vastly reduced.


Juergen Mueller: One last question. How does everything we’ve discussed relate to the hospital’s mission and vision?


Scott Harrison: That’s a great question. At Parkland, we are dedicated to the health and well-being of individuals and communities entrusted to our care. Our actions define the standard of excellence for public and academic health care systems. As a data services team, we view ourselves as an extension of the healthcare team—caring for those who care for our patients. Data plays such a critical role in our day to day operations, especially now, and enables our healthcare providers to stand confidently at the front lines knowing they have the needed critical inventory, the latest information and the staffing to get the job done.


Juergen Mueller: Thanks a lot for sharing your story, Scott and Clay. It’s rewarding to witness the resounding impact that the right portfolio of technologies can have.


Scott Harrison: I also think our success speaks to the value of our partnership. We are grateful that when this pandemic hit, SAP came in with their sleeves rolled up to help us get the most out the technology we already had in place.


Juergen Mueller: We are in this together. I’m very pleased that SAP’s Business Technology Platform played a small role in helping you better serve your community.

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