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Moving Healthcare Data to the Cloud: New Level of Benefits

November 23, 2018 Written by Aliaksandra Makarevich, Content Manager
Digitalization in the healthcare sector is going at breakneck speed, and one of its signifiers is a growing scope of use of cloud technology.

According to a recent HIMSS Analytics survey, 83% of medical organizations use the cloud for data storage and data processing today, with no slowdown in sight.

Here are some more stats:
  • 49% healthcare organizations are using private clouds;
  • 32% use a hybrid IT environment (i.e. some portions are virtualized while others are on-premises);
  • 19% are using public cloud services.
The world’s biggest healthcare payers are planning to bring all their data to the cloud, like the US government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: they are completing the relocation of their services portal, Healthcare.gov, to the cloud by April 2019.

What is standing behind this massive shift of sensitive medical data to the cloud?

Hospitals, surgical centers and other medical institutions are looking for the same sort of benefits offered by the cloud as other industries.   There are some key resonas why health organizations, along with other industries, are moving their data to the cloud All in all, three primary benefits which the cloud offers to the healthcare industry, as was stated by the Cloud Standards Customer Council (CSCC) in 2017, are: economic, operational and functional.

Economic benefits

Gartner’s IT Budget report highlights that healthcare companies often spend nearly 75% of their IT budgets on maintaining internal systems. As every healthcare organization is interested in budget optimization and capital expenditure reduction, here are some things to think about when considering going for the cloud:
  • Cost flexibility. The cloud resources are acquired on demand as needed and paid for as an operating expense.
  • Optimization of staff resources. With cloud computing, a healthcare organization doesn’t need a full-sized internal skilled IT staff to deploy and maintain the system: these costs are included in the cost of the cloud medical healthcare solution.
  • Moving from a capital expense (CAPEX) centric model to an operational expense (OPEX) centric model. Health organizations can avoid capital expenditures, needed for replacing aging infrastructure equipment, as now all the cloud system’s update is made by the cloud provider.

Operational benefits

These benefits include, first of all, outstanding scalability and flexibility of the cloud capable of meeting changing demands.

Different outbreaks can happen in healthcare – a new epidemic, a large-scale disaster, seasonal disease incidence. These events may demand additional bandwidth or hardware, but medical institutions with on-premises networks usually make do with the infrastructure they have.

But when a healthcare organization moves to a virtualized network, it can manage its bandwidth issues based on the actual needs of the clinic, instead of either paying for a level of bandwidth only needed for a short period or having lower network performance during high-need periods.

Moreover, every clinic can win from the cloud’s flexibility in managing its everyday routing, and not only in a force-majeure case. A significant increase in the adoption of electronic medical records (EMR), electronic health records (EHR), and personal health records (PHR), digitization of outputs from scanning and monitoring devices, and transferring of older medical records into a digital form – all these factors make medical records more voluminous and, as a result, cloud storage is getting more attractive than on-premises infrastructures.
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Functional benefits

Healthcare providers are actively moving to a value-based paradigm, where it is the quality of services, and not their quantity, that matters. Implementing the cloud and cloud application services comes perfectly in line with this approach.

First, healthcare organizations and the cloud exchange data using standards-based protocols over the Internet. Using wired and wireless systems for establishing reliable connectivity enables access to the stored data from any location where Internet connectivity can be established.
For example, the University of California-San Francisco’s Careweb Messenger provides clinicians with anytime, anywhere access to a more comprehensive patient records. This makes clinical decision-making more fact-based, which brings about better outcomes both for clinics’ management and their patients.
Second, using the cloud extends the access to the data stored there to any device, and using mobile phones for getting access to the cloud is a feature often supported by healthcare cloud services.

All these benefits, when combined, add to extending the capabilities available to health organizations, and implementing new ways of working and new offers to make to their patients.

But security is still a serious point of concern for health organizations, isn’t it?

Right.

In healthcare, providers have always been particularly cautious of entrusting protected health information (PHI) to outside vendors. No doubt, putting this data into a public cloud looked like a challenge at the very beginning of cloud computing deployment.

Most common concerns regarding moving data to the public cloud include the following ones However, now cloud services providers have grown more mature, devoting incredible financial and human resources to providing security to their customers. Such major companies as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon base their reputation on these guarantees.

These established tech giants massively invest into advanced encryption services, high-level network monitoring, and fine-grained access controls and access logging – and the scope of these investments can’t be compared to the resources of a hospital thinking about deploying its custom on-premises database.

Avoiding Main Roadblocks When Turning to Cloud Solutions

  • Interoperability
Typically a health organization is moving to the cloud from its legacy data storage infrastructure. In order to make a smooth transition, the first step should be to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing IT infrastructure. It would allow for making a migration roadmap as a basis of a detailed step-by-step cloud technology strategy with reduced interoperability risks.

In this case the success of the migration process greatly depends on the expertise of a healthcare IT company which would define and put into action a data transition policy.
  • Infrastructure reorganization
Skilled healthcare IT engineers still remain a category of specialists hospitals are fighting for. Even if they have internal specialists, those have been working with an outdated on-premises solution and now have to obtain new skills.

Partnering with cloud service providers looks like a good solution in this case: their external support helps tackle potential cloud adoption challenges and provide cloud consulting services, while leaving space for a medical institution to form and train its own cloud team at a reasonable pace.
  • Legal compliance
Regulatory mandates such as HIPAA and the Affordable Care Act are constantly evolving and changing. This creates additional problems for medical institutions’ internal staff who have to follow every introduced change in the legal acts to stay up to date.

If monitoring is not done properly, violations of HIPAA compliance can come at a fine ranging from $100 to $5,000, depending on the case.

In this situation, transitioning to the cloud tackles the problem right from the start, as now it is the cloud provider’s responsibility to follow the legal rules and guidelines.
The “supply and demand” law comes into action, and a number of cloud solutions is only growing, with some of them developed specifically for the healthcare sector, like Google’s Cloud Healthcare API. Smart healthcare demands smart approaches, and cloud computing stays on top of the list of solutions which health organizations will apply in the nearest future.

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