22 Oct 2013, Ms Natasha Gulati, BioSpectrum
We live in a rapidly evolving world. Some of the things we see today did not even exist 10 years ago and this impact of innovation has been astonishingly pervasive across the healthcare industry. As governments across the world strive to deliver high standards-of-care, the role of technology in improving quality and reducing healthcare costs becomes increasingly crucial.
However, while all industry stakeholders agree that advance technologies and their adoption is important, few have realized the complete potential of investing in this area.
Cloud is a typical example of a technology which is rather under-appreciated in healthcare. Most healthcare organisations simply do not understand cloud and so many more are wary or sceptical of cloud solutions, due to the supposed "threat" to data privacy and security. With the whole world screaming about regulations and data protection, the real value that a technology like cloud can offer is lost. It is important for the healthcare industry's chief information officers (CIO) to step back, think through their information technology (IT) investment decisions and critically analyse what the current design could do for them over the next decade.
At the onset one must understand what cloud really is. Cloud storage and computing can be defined as a set of virtual servers working in tandem over the internet. The idea behind the concept is to network large groups of servers that have low cost personal computer (PC) configuration to carry out distributed data processing activities across the network using specialized connections.
The applications are easily accessible through the internet. These applications use large data centers and powerful servers that host web applications and services. Cloud architecture is a collection of resources which are managed dynamically and can be provisioned, de-provisioned, monitored and maintained at any point of time. This gives Cloud its unique value proposition, that of it being a IT tools with flexibility in terms of cost and usage.
To give you a simple example, nowdays one does not pay for television channels that one does not watch but instead has the flexibility to choose his channels as well as the option of modifying his mix of subscribed channels at any point in time. By applying the same logic, a healthcare CIO must question why the organization is paying for massive data centers, software applications and IT personnel during the trough periods of the business cycle, when resource utilization is at its minimum. Why not customize the organization's usage and availability of resources to mirror its business cycle fluctuations?
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The ramifications of cloud adoption in healthcare are unimaginable. With healthcare providers looking at automating processes at lower cost and higher gains, cloud computing can act as an ideal platform in the healthcare IT space. Cloud computing could be seen as a boon to healthcare IT services, as a number of hospitals could share infrastructure with vast number of systems linked together for reducing cost and increasing efficiency. This also means real-time availability of patient information for doctors, nursing staff and other support services not within the country but possibly across various countries as medical professionals can access patient information from any internet enabled device without installing any software.
In the cloud computing scenario the electronic medical record (EMR) software or the LIS software and information are located in the central server and not on individual computers. Patient information and data can be accessed globally and resources can be shared by a group of hospitals rather than each hospital having a separate IT infrastructure. Cloud computing would help hospitals to achieve more efficient use of their hardware and software investments and increase profitability by improving the utilization of resources to the maximum.
By pooling the various healthcare IT resources into large clouds, hospitals can reduce the cost and increase utilization as the resources are delivered only, when they are required. The use of cloud computing architecture helps is in eliminating the time and effort needed to roll a healthcare IT application in a hospital.
The future direction of the healthcare industry is quite visionary with stakeholders envisaging a seamless flow of medical knowledge facilitated by cloud. With the exponential growth of data across all sectors, it only serves to feed the human appetite for advancement when we start imagining what one could do with all this information. A futuristic scenario would include real-time information capture, analysis and dissemination amongst all healthcare industry participants including patients, care providers, healthcare delivery organizations, insurance companies, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, research organizations and government agencies.
At a micro-level, it would help deliver proactive care to the patient and improved support and satisfaction to care givers while at macro-level such as web of multidirectional information flow would help improve national healthcare infrastructure, formulate policies and prevent different types of adverse events including acute staff shortage, rise of an epidemic or a healthcare funding crisis. The role of advanced analytics powered by cloud computing is, of course, critical here as that would ensure that the right information is delivered to the right participant at the right time in the right format rather than just exchanging lengthy streams of data.
A devil's advocate would immediately jump to the challenges around information sharing protocols and the importance of patient privacy. This is where a unified approach to not only establishing policies and standards but also driving awareness and adoption could make all the difference. Initiatives in this direction have already started, such as the CommonWell Health Alliance which aims to improve interoperability between electronic health records (EHRs) and EMRs.
A number of companies, such as Cisco, are driving consumer awareness through research programs which point towards the added security that cloud offers to a healthcare environment, thus educating healthcare providers at a much larger level. Even leading software vendors like Microsoft and IBM are preparing for cloud transformation by proactively reaching out to customers with the benefits of virtualisation and working with them directly to chalk out a customized cloud solution that is optimal for their business.
In a highly competitive healthcare market it is important for healthcare IT vendors and hospitals to adopt innovative solutions in order to reduce cost and increase efficiency. Cloud storage and computing can help enhancing capabilities and provides tremendous value by achieving efficient use of software and hardware investments. This kind of infrastructure drives profitability by improving resource utilization and increasing their scalability. Technology companies, such as software vendors, system integrators and telecommunication service providers are collaborating amongst themselves to be able to provide a holistic solution to the customer.
Keeping in mind the long term benefits of such a technology many healthcare companies including medical device manufacturers and pharmaceuticals are joining the band wagon. There is tremendous promise for cloud solutions in the healthcare industry and is an ideal tool to leverage computing power at low cost.