SAS, Blue Cross team up on patient care

Insurer says it will help create better health care options

dranii@newsobserver.com May 11, 2012 

Business software giant SAS and the state’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, are teaming to harness the power of “big data” to develop more personalized care for patients.

The collaboration between the two heavyweights, announced Thursday, is meant to create a new product that Cary-based SAS can market to health insurers nationwide. For Blue Cross, the goal is to improve health care for its 3.6 million members, which would, in turn, reduce the health-care costs they incur. Blue Cross also foresees crafting new products to fill market niches based on insights it hopes to derive from the partnership.

Financial terms of the arrangement weren’t disclosed.

The plan is to combine Blue Cross’ patient-specific data with aggregated, anonymous data that are widely available to identify members who could benefit from a particular therapy. In addition to laying out who could most benefit from, say, a flu shot or a colonoscopy, the thinking is the data will help Blue Cross and other insurers determine which patients might be willing to pursue that option and the best way to encourage them to do so.

SAS’s business intelligence and analytics software, which helps customers better understand their operations and predict trends, is central to the partnership.

“The power of the SAS analytics engines is you can tease information and connections and insights out of data that appears to be too disparate or too aggregated to be useful,” said Don Bradley, chief medical officer at Blue Cross.

Graham Hughes, chief medical officer at SAS, said the third-party data that the collaboration plans to mine is widely used by other industries but hasn’t yet been tapped by health insurers.

“If you roll the clock ahead five years, we are going to be wondering why we didn’t do this sooner and why it wasn’t already a part of health care,” Hughes said.

Blue Cross, along with many other health insurers, already does some “predictive modeling” based on its internal data. But adding new data from third-party sources – such as online and retail data – is expected to shed new light on the needs and habits of different demographic groups.

The initiative also plays into the broader aspirations of both companies.

Plans for the future

Blue Cross has been investing in an array of innovative programs with the twin goals of improving patient care and lowering health care costs. That includes teaming up last year with Allscripts to help more than 750 doctors and 39 free clinics switch to electronic medical records and creating a joint venture with UNC Health Care that is testing a new way of serving chronically ill patients.

SAS, meanwhile, has been striving to boost its revenue from the health care sector, which accounted for 2 percent of its revenue in 2010 and 3 percent in 2011.

The privately held company, which generated $2.7 billion in revenue last year, has 12,837 employees worldwide, including 4,940 in Cary.

That effort included last year’s formation of a think tank at its Cary headquarters, the SAS Center for Health Analytics and Insights, which is spearheading the collaboration with Blue Cross. In November, SAS teamed up with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to develop a new product to improve patient care.

Blue Cross is expected to reap the fruits of the partnership in the near-term, while SAS’ Hughes said he’s hopeful the software company will be able to roll out a new product stemming from the collaboration early next year.

“We’re not in a rush,” Hughes said. “We’re in a rush to do it right and to prove we can have an impact on patients’ lives and improve outcomes.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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