Case Study

Business Intelligence Tool Means Healthy Data at UVA

University IT groups will recognize the challenge of combining disparate data from more than one department in order to create meaningful reports for various users.

At the University of Virginia Department of Medicine, which is overseen by UVA's School of Medicine, data was coming from two very different accounting systems: one used by the university's Health Services Foundation, the other used by the School of Medicine. The use of two accounting systems meant that faculty members--usually physicians--either couldn't get reports with the information they wanted from the two systems or had to ask IT specialists for help, then wait for a report to be generated.

Likewise, a completely different set of users--clinical and department administrators--needed to create consolidated financial reports, clinical billing reports and more that drew on both databases.

To solve the problem, the UVA Department of Medicine streamlined its financial and clinical reporting with a WebFOCUS business intelligence (BI) platform from Information Builders.

The time savings from the BI system have been marked, according to Mike Zang, director of IT for UVA's Department of Medicine. A financial report that might have taken a month to six weeks to create and manipulate previously using Microsoft Excel takes just a couple of hours to load now, though it can still take several weeks to sort through the resulting reports for problems. But there's a key difference, Zang said: Previously, weeks might have been spent just making sure the incoming data was correct.

The rollout was a three-year effort--although what took most of the time wasn't the software installation itself. "The technology end is so easy that we rolled [WebFOCUS] out to the entire department at once," Zang said. Instead, the brunt of project time was spent creating business rules designating how the accounting data should be handled. That was a complex process because the two accounting systems that WebFOCUS accesses--Oracle Financials for the university, and a system called Epicor for outpatient billing by the School of Medicine--are set up to use different fiscal years and different general ledgers. "We had to figure out how to marry up the two," Zang explained.

The IT group also had to deal with items such as different naming schemes for faculty members in the two databases. Zang's team handled that issue with custom programming, although they could also have used Information Builder's ETL (Extract, Transform and Load) tools to manage data mappings between tables.

With the business intelligence system in place, business managers "have [much] more control over what data they see, and how they dig into it," Zang said. That, in turn, points up an advantage of using an ad hoc report generator that accesses live data to create reports on the fly. Before, users tended to import data into Excel, then manipulate it themselves, often extensively. The result: complex user-created formulas with little outside control of either the data or the formulas.

After users have worked with data extensively in Excel, Zang pointed out, questions would arise around its quality. "Is [that data] really valid? Or have users done something to a formula that's broken it?" With WebFOCUS, current data is drawn directly and in real time from the two accounting systems, largely eliminating issues around data quality.

Getting reports is also much easier for all users. Before the WebFOCUS software was in place, faculty could order and view reports such as clinical billing records or financial forecasts of the year's grants, clinical work and data, broken down by professor. To obtain those reports, however, a faculty member had to ask a business manager for the report--a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Now, faculty produce their own reports using WebFOCUS. Those reports can now include archival data, which couldn't be done before, and can be obtained at any time. WebFOCUS also allows faculty members to "drill down" into the financial details of various reports.

One challenge with a new tool, especially something as complex as business intelligence software, is getting users to appreciate, understand, and use the software. Remarkably, there was no training of users on WebFOCUS, according to Zang. The first month of use, his team sent new reports in PDF format, with instructions on how to use WebFOCUS. The next month, they sent a PDF but included a link to the live system. Finally, they simply sent a link to the live system, eliminating the PDF altogether.

Support has also proved to be simple: Just one IT staff member continues to handle support for an estimated 175 or so users, although Zang's department did produce a manual specific to obtaining UVA Department of Medicine data.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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