Healthcare in the Cloud: Benefits and Precautions
by Dave Wilson on May 6, 2011
These days it seems you can’t go anywhere without seeing “Cloud” mentioned. Microsoft has their “To the Cloud” commercials on television. The last healthcare tradeshow I attended had cloud messaging everywhere and one vendor even hung fluffy cotton balls from their stand.
But what is the cloud to healthcare providers really? How does the cloud fit into healthcare?
What is the cloud in a healthcare context? Cloud means many things to many people and questions abound. If you have access to the Internet, do you have the cloud? Is paying for access on an as-needed basis the cloud? What about having a 3rd party manage your IT – is this a cloud model?
Complex Yet Simple
The answer is yes – and no. While these are factors that contribute to having a cloud operation, the cloud in healthcare is really more complex and at the same time simplified for providers. Here are four benefits:
1. Economies of Scale
The cloud gives healthcare providers a means of saving costs by taking advantage of economies of scale. By sharing resources with other facilities, the initial investment required to get started is greatly diminished and the ability to transform the clinical setting can be accelerated.
Take for example the use case of having disaster recovery capabilities for your imaging department. To invest in an offsite DR facility can be as costly, as buying equipment, providing a site, and all the trappings that come with this can be quite onerous. Outsourcing this to a cloud provider means that a facility could get started today without requiring vast amounts of capital.
2. OPEX vs. CAPEX
The cloud also allows a facility to operationalize these expenses. Rather than a capital purchase, the facility funds this through operational expenditures, which are often easier to manage than going to the board for capital.
Healthcare data grows at unusual rates. The growth of digital information is hard to predict because as more systems become digital the volume of data they produce increases demand. Using the cloud as a way to predict the growth rate of information takes away all the guess work.
No longer does a facility have to plan their infrastructure for growth because the cloud provider is ready to handle any increase or decrease in demand on the fly. This also means that expenses go by the way of usage – don’t use a service, don’t pay for it. Get 100% optimization out of a system all the time. It’s hard to beat that kind of return on investment.
4. Service Innovation
The cloud also offers healthcare providers a unique opportunity to provide new services that would otherwise be cost prohibitive. Digital pathology is a good example. The move to digital pathology poses a huge problem for many healthcare providers as the costs associated with large file sizes and the required infrastructure is challenging to say the least. But a cloud based solution opens new doors. Not only could a facility manage the infrastructure requirements but they can provide access to specialists and pathologists that they may not have had access to before. This enables smaller facilities or remote caregivers to provide new services to their patient population in a cost effective manner.
However, given the suspicious nature of healthcare information being “out there,” the cloud is not the panacea it may seem. There are a number of issues that providers need to be aware of before jumping into a cloud infrastructure. Legislation and regulatory concerns such as HIPAA impact not only the healthcare facility, but as patient information moves to the cloud, there are issues that need to be addressed. The cloud provider must be “security and privacy aware” as it pertains to patient information. In addition to this, the actual location of where data will be stored can also be a problem. Patient data that crosses borders, for example, can present a whole myriad of problems.
Pundits often raise the issue of who owns the data once it gets to the cloud but I think the issue is more around how you get the data out of one provider and move it to another, should the desire to change providers arise. The use of standards and ensuring that there are no proprietary features that will tie in a facility are of utmost importance.
Finally, Service Level Agreements will be important. Healthcare providers need to have 24/7/365 access to patient data. It needs to be fast and reliable and downtime is not tolerated when it comes to patient care. As cloud providers move into healthcare, I’m sure we will see demanding healthcare requirements push the technology to its limits very quickly. That said, I believe that the technology will keep up and providers will be able to take advantage of all the benefits the cloud can offer in terms of improving patient care.
So how do healthcare providers get to the cloud? Stay tuned for my Cloud Maturity Model in Healthcare post, coming soon.