The winds of change are blowing in the analytics field. Traditionally, analytics teams were made up of professionals with complementary skills that typically include a data scientist, solution architect, data hygienist, data explorers, data expert and initiative expert.

Because of the range of skills needed, it was rare for an organization to find one individual who could perform well across this professional spectrum. In other words, a team effort was generally required. And still today, many of the medium to large healthcare organizations recruit analytics teams.

These teams are tasked with gathering data sets, data warehouses and business intelligence data cubes as well as developing dashboards.

But the industry is changing. Consistent with the trend of emphasizing public participation in consumer health, we are witnessing the emergence of the ‘citizen data analyst’. Gartner coined the term ‘citizen data scientist’ in recognition that everyone is in a position today to take on this new role in their work and their outside life.

Analytics technologies have now advanced to the point that anyone within an organization can leverage user-friendly tools to execute analytics tasks and arrive at meaningful information in addressing questions – all without needing to call on the professional analytics team.

With broader access to their digital health data, we can expect that many Canadian consumers will join the community of citizen data analysts. Tethered portals for patients have provided a useful learning environment whereby some Canadian provider organizations have enabled patientviewing of portions of their health data.

This can be seen in the recent unveiling of Alberta’s Health Quality Council’s (HQCA) Emergency Department Length of Stay analytics platform. The intended audience of this new public website includes the public, providers and health system administrators.

Its goal is “to encourage thinking about why differences (between Emergency Departments) might exist [and how they] can start conversations and lead to solutions for improved quality of healthcare.” Instead of providing limited interpretations of all the data collected, everyone is invited to join the conversation.

It’s not solely websites that are embracing the citizen data analyst. The next wave of tools will shift from provider-managed data to consumer-managed data, and will ultimately result in consumer patients having direct management of their electronic health record, with data flowing from provider systems via application program interfaces.

Despite a wonderful blitz of technology enablement for analytics over the past few years, many healthcare leaders continue to find themselves trying to answer questions without having a firm grasp on the underlying data required to support decisions. This is true at both the public policy development level and at the health delivery, patient-encounter, decision-support level.

Luckily this issue is being gradually addressed by websites like Patients Like Me (PLM), which provides an analytics platform that is fueled by publicly contributed personal health information. Today, PLM has over 500,000 contributors with a range of over 2,700 conditions and one simple mission: to put patients first.

Jamie Haywood, co-founder of PLM, stated that “We started with the assumption that patients had knowledge we needed, rather than we had knowledge they needed. We didn’t have the answers, but patients had the insights that could help us collectively find them.” PLM is a remarkable example of engaging consumers by putting data in the hands of citizen data analysts who want to make a difference in the world.

It’s not solely independent organizations that see the benefit of this shift. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) regulatory requirements have shifted towards greater adoption of analytics.

Specifically, ONC’s Stage 3 meaningful use program has identified January, 2018 as the date requirement for health providers to give consumers direct connectivity to their healthcare data using application program interfaces. While no such deadlines have been set in Canada, we can expect this country’s emphasis on digital health will come to echo U.S. efforts.

So how does one become a citizen data analyst? How can consumers and healthcare leaders become more involved in understanding their own health information? Analytics can be as straightforward as a three-step process for realizing real benefits without waiting years for results:

1. Instead of focusing on building a data mountain, start by framing the question or problem that is most pressing to you;

2. Explore, discover and learn with the data that is available within your reach. Work with tools such as a simple spreadsheet, a web site with visual dashboarding, or an embedded machine learning model that has been prepared by others;

3. Capture and record useful knowledge from step two that yields information on the question, outcome or business problem from step one. AND, with your new knowledge from step two, identify some gaps in your data set, and use your acquired knowledge to collect, expand data and rewind to step one. Repeat this three-step process.

With the growth of new analytics tools being made available to the consumer and healthcare leaders alike, everyone will have an opportunity to don the citizen data analyst hat. The emergence of this role will not only benefit the industry as a whole, but it’ll further empower patients to have a greater understanding of their health. Truly these winds of change  bring good fortune to the world of analytics.

This article originally appeared in the Canadian Healthcare Technology May 2017 issue which can be accessed via the canhealth website.