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Very Big Data

The field of analytics has fallen into a few big holes lately that represent both its promise and its peril.  These holes pertain to privacy, policy, and predictions.

Policy.  2.2/7. The biggest analytics project in recent history is the $6 billion federal investment in the health exchanges.  The goals of the health exchanges are to enroll people in the health insurance plans of their choice, determine insurance subsidies for individuals, and inform insurance companies so that they could issue policies and bills.

The project touches on all the requisites of analytics including big data collection, multiple sources, integration, embedded algorithms, real time reporting, and state of the art software and hardware.  As everyone knows, the implementation was a terrible failure.

The CBO’s conservative estimate was that 7 million individuals would enroll in the exchanges.  Only 2.2 million did so by the end of 2013.  (This does not include Medicaid enrollment which had its own projections.)  The big federal vendor, CGI, is being blamed for the mess.

Note that CGI was also the vendor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which had the worst performance of all states in meeting enrollment numbers despite its long head start as the Romney reform state and its groundbreaking exchange called the Connector. New analytics vendors, including Accenture and Optum, have been brought in for the rescue.

Was it really a result of bad software, hardware, and coding?   Was it  that the design to enroll and determine subsidies had “complexity built-in” because of the legislation that cobbled together existing cumbersome systems, e.g. private health insurance systems?  Was it because of the incessant politics of repeal that distracted policy implementation?  Yes, all of the above.

The big “hole”, in my view, was the lack of communications between the policy makers (the business) and the technology people.  The technologists complained that the business could not make decisions and provide clear guidance.  The business expected the technology companies to know all about the complicated analytics and get the job done, on time.

This ensuing rift where each group did not know how to talk with the other is recognized as a critical failure point.  In fact, those who are stepping into the rescue role have emphasized that there will be management status checks daily “at 9 AM and 5 PM” to bring people together, know the plan, manage the project, stay focused, and solve problems.

Walking around the hole will require a better understanding as to why the business and the technology folks do not communicate well and to recognize that soft people skills can avert hard technical catastrophes.

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Why Healthcare Should Be Worried About the Target Cyber Attacks

If you are a CEO or COO of a health care organization, and your IT people have been trying to get your attention, it’s time to have a serious sit-down with them.

If they haven’t been trying to get your attention, it’s time to have an more serious sit-down with them, complete with charts and graphs and arrows on fip charts.

Here’s why: Remember in November it was revealed that the Target retail chain’s computer systems were compromised? Some 70 million names, home addresses and phone numbers were stolen (pretty good raw material for identity theft) and 40 million credit card numbers.

It has turned out since then that some two dozen other companies, including Neiman-Marcus, the Michael’s arts-and-crafts chain and the White Lodging Services hotel management firm, have been hacked in similar ways, with the attackers software sitting in the companies’ servers, credit card machines and cash registers often for months before they were detected, sucking down every transaction, every bit of data moved about.

Hey wait, you say, I have every confidence in our computer security. Why we passed a security audit just recently.

Heh. So did Target — just before they discovered the break-in. They got a clean bill of health, and the auditors failed to find the malware installed on every server, every credit card terminal, every cash register.

Why? Because the attackers have gotten way more sophisticated, and they used new techniques and methods of entry. You can now buy ready-made hacking software designed to do this on the Internet for less than $1000.

Here’s the kicker: Target has security guards at the doors, it has those beeper tags on small high-value items so you can’t sneak them out without paying for them, it has burglar alarms — but the perps in the biggest heist in the company’s history entered through the thermostat.

Got that? The thermostat.

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Are Retail Clinics Dangerous?

Target, Walgreens and CVS have recently started medical clinics in their stores. Opening up these “retail clinics” seems both potentially profitable and, at first blush, somehow pushes the lines on our tradition view of where medical services should be located. Giving the concept of retail clinics some thought might reveal store-based providers to be convenient and cost-effective, or alternatively full of conflicts of interest and potential harms. Should we be worried about retail clinics turning into the Walmart of medicine?

The retail clinic industry appears to have grown rapidly over the last few years. Most of these clinics are run by three large chains–Target, Walgreens and CVS–but there are also a mix of smaller providers branching out of existing chains like the Mayo Clinic. Their primary use seems to be the treatment of acute “urgent care” conditions such as symptomatic treatment of upper respiratory tract infections (lots of sore throats), or providing simple preventive care such as vaccinations. Most patients who visit these retail clinics will see a nurse practitioner. According to a recent study that tracked the growth of these clinics from 2007 to 2009, there was a four-fold rise in the number of these clinics, such that there are now over 1,200 retail clinics that see almost 6 million visits per year.

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