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HMS CIO: We're big data scientists, not big data practitioners

The biggest risk businesses face these days is a lack of IT talent, according to HMS Holding Corp. CIO Cynthia Nustad. First and foremost, Nustad, whose company offers healthcare cost containment solutions to government-funded, commercial and private entities, is on the hunt for big data scientists -- and following close behind, people with programming, data mapping, business analytics and communication skills. In this CIO Innovators video shot at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., Nustad talks with SearchCIO Editorial Director Christina Torode about how technology is revolutionizing the healthcare space, what HMS is hoping to get out of big data and why privacy is a big concern for her in this era of data proliferation.

The MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Awards honor CIOs who are innovative and provide business value at their organization. Can you explain what projects you worked on in the past year to achieve business value? Was it a combination of projects or one specific project?

Cynthia Nustad: For us, it's a combination of projects, because HMS is a unique company. We're a for-profit company but we have a social mind. Our focus is on healthcare cost containment, which means most of our clients are government- or commercial-planned. And really, to get ahead in this industry you're innovating on big data, you're making your operational processes strong, you're making the billing platform strong. And the more efficient you are as a company, the more profit you give back to your clients and the more gratitude you get as a company.

So, we've laid down a new data warehouse platform. We've made new analytics. We articulate our investment portfolio in a very unique way, but really, it's the whole scheme of innovations that we brought together that really help propel us towards this and several other industry awards.

You mentioned data analytics. Is that the technology that is going to revolutionize your industry or change business as we know it, or is it something else?

If we want to call it 'big data,' 'open data,' 'small data,' whatever you want to call it, our products, services and work revolve around leveraging that data to make our businesses stronger.

Nustad: Big data's interesting, right? It is a word that sometimes I don't like because it's so 'hype-y,' if I can use that word, but I just sat through an hour-and-a-half discussion with MIT professors about how they're using it in academic and business applications. For us, we really do data analytics. And if we want to call it 'big data,' great. It tends to be a good descriptor of lots of analytics. I don't like it in the sense that it's too much hype for what everyone should be doing.

I do strongly believe that we're in an era of data proliferation. So, regardless if we want to call it 'big data,' 'open data,' 'small data,' whatever you want to call it, our products, services and work revolve around leveraging that data to make our businesses stronger. And so, I see us as data scientist businesses, not big data practitioners.

Can you give an example of how the business is gaining value from that?

Nustad: One of the things that is one of our unique benefits at HMS is looking at longitudinal patterns of claims data, eligibility data, provider billing data, and looking for fraud, waste and abuse patterns. Just by the nature of our products and services, you're looking across huge, huge amounts of vast data that you have to really analyze to find those small insights. And so, we can't go a minute or a meeting without talking about what data's needed for that specific product.

What is your biggest business challenge or biggest opportunity for you?

Nustad: We were just talking about this over coffee this morning. The challenge for me is, we can get at the data but the privacy considerations are really paramount. So, would you really want someone outside of your own sphere looking at your claims history, your family's claims data and really trying to get more about you via that direction? It feels very onerous. And so we are in this debate of 'Do I, as an end consumer, control that data, or is someone else going to be looking at me?' That really is philosophical and almost ethical to talk about: Who owns that data? So, I see one of the challenges we will face in the next decade is how do we get access to data to make truthful insights where we're not infringing on someone's privacy, or they're allowing us to opt in to leveraging that information?

What about looking ahead -- what's your next big project?

Nustad: You know, one of the things that still scares me as a CIO is the amount of data that we have in movement. Right? So, it's not encrypted and stored in a house -- it's thousands of files going in and out [each] day, and you're depending on your end partners to really be as secure as you. And so, I still worry about data movement and the security of that data. We're going to be focusing on ways that we can attest [to], ensure and speed up that transmission of data knowing it's secure and we feel confident in our processes. That's one area I'd like to see more focus.

Is that the biggest area of risk for your company?

Nustad: No, I think, honestly, the biggest area of risk is probably not even just industry-specific. Our biggest risk is finding IT talent. And so, no matter what, I am only as successful as the team that we have put in place, the team that is on the business side, the team [that's] in IT. And if we can't find that talent, then none of my products, services and business goes.

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And so, we're investing quite a bit of our days in college recruitment: reaching-out recruitment, messaging, speaking, partnering in any conferences we can to get our message out [to] -- because we really want bright people to join our firm, just like everyone else. So, I can sit in that room today and there are 400 other recruiters in leadership positions trying to find the right talent for their teams. So, IT talent is where I see we need to grow in the U.S. desperately.

Is there a specific technology skill set that you are looking for?

I don't want to call them 'data scientists,' but people who really will take the time to thoughtfully look at data, look at how you're going to leverage translating it, transmitting it back and forth. So, there are data scientists, but [there are also] people who have programming skills, data mapping skills, business analyst skills, communication skills. I'm not necessarily looking for a role, but training that makes them a more complete, strong analyst.

Christina Torode is editorial director for SearchCIO; write to her at [email protected].

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