Feature | Information Technology | February 01, 2020 | By Tyna Callahan

Cloud storage can help improve accessibility, speed and patient care in an era of new technologies and increased demand by more “ologies”

Cloud-scale storage architecture is key to orchestrating highly secure, reliable and accessible data systems using affordable, efficient and sustainable approaches.

In healthcare, critical systems are being used to deliver vital information and services 24/7/365. Clinicians demand easy, always-on access to patient data; the quality of care can suffer if data is unavailable or slow to retrieve. As healthcare relies more and more heavily on digital, connected equipment and imaging systems, the volume of data is growing at an accelerating pace. Combine that accelerating data growth with long data retention requirements, and it is easy to see why healthcare executives are concerned about storage. For all these reasons and more, cost control and scalability without disruption are critical.

To stay competitive and ready to deliver high-caliber patient care, hospitals endeavor to use the best technology available. Established technology like electronic health records (EHR), emerging internet-of-things (IoT) solutions for medical devices and hospital equipment, and medical imaging advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications all generate and process data. Their convergence is driving exponential increases in the volume of medical data that needs to be collected, organized, integrated and analyzed. It is also made available to the thousands of physicians and other clinicians who care for the hundreds of thousands of patients in each large hospital or healthcare system. 

Cloud Storage Solutions

Hospital systems need powerful storage tools that make data easy to protect, search and manage. Cloud-scale storage architecture is key to orchestrating highly secure, reliable and accessible data systems using affordable, efficient and sustainable approaches. Developing a data-intensive private or hybrid “health cloud” is especially critical for large healthcare systems with inpatient, emergency and outpatient treatment and diagnostic services in geographically distributed locations. 

Data availability matters, perhaps more in healthcare than anywhere, because patient health and safety are at stake. Ensuring that electronic patient health information (ePHI) is kept safe, intact, and accessible readily and quickly, is critical to care team productivity and patient outcomes. As ePHI access becomes the mandated norm across the care continuum, regulators, practitioners and patients expect a more unified, complete health record available wherever they go.

Having the right patient health information storage in place affects everything from the individual patient’s diagnosis and treatment to institutional efficiency and compliance efforts. Healthcare systems and hospitals must implement storage solutions that provide superior data durability with guaranteed online availability at a low total cost of ownership. Retrieval times have to be quick. Clinicians move fast and have heavy patient loads. Simplicity is crucial in healthcare environments where solutions are easy for IT to implement and integrate with other systems. These systems also need to be easy for clinicians and technicians to use. 

Simple Rules for Medical Data Storage

Here are a few simple rules to follow for medical data storage:

• Do not slow clinicians down. They should not have to wait for access. Storage solutions should enable them to retrieve recent or archived images, studies and records immediately. Tedious searches through tape archives and long load times should be eliminated;

• Do not compromise patient care by risking loss of data — whether total loss or degradation in quality;

• Keep infrastructure and administrative costs low. Mix and match standard x86 servers. Modern storage does not require expensive proprietary hardware or hefty staff overhead; and

• Keep data safe to protect patients, reduce fraud and breach risk, and avoid associated regulatory penalties.

Medical Imaging Use Case 

Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Marseille (AP-HM) is the third largest of France’s academic hospital groups. AP-HM’s four hospitals process 125,000 patient admissions each year and provide 3,400 patient beds. The group’s busy emergency rooms see 228,000 visits each year and the emergency services arm takes more than 600,000 calls. AP-HM employs cutting-edge technologies that allow them to offer a full range of diagnostic and interventional services, including conventional radiology, interventional imaging, women’s imaging, nuclear medicine, radiotherapy and more. 

With all of that technology comes a huge responsibility to store and safeguard massive amounts of data while keeping it available for immediate use.

AP-HM formerly archived the medical images in a volume of just 60 TB. They used replication for resiliency, so the total amount of stored data was 120 TB, and growing at 20 TB each year. Fast-forward just six years, the total amount was more than half a petabyte and the growth rate had doubled. 

“It was very apparent that we needed more capacity for medical imaging, just with current patient and study volume,” said Renaud Masse, CTO, infrastructure management at AP-HM. “But we could also see clearly that those requirements would swell even further as we added new equipment, because resolution and number of slices keep increasing. Then, on top of all of that, more departments — more ‘ologies — were looking to us for storage, and genomics was emerging as a system priority as well.” 

During that six years of rapid data growth, the infrastructure team at AP-HM endured a highly disruptive migration from legacy storage to NAS. In fact, by the time the migration was done, warranty expiration and data growth had pushed them into an expensive territory with NAS. They then sought a more sustainable solution that met their strong requirements for ensuring broad compatibility and avoiding lock-in. They insisted on a solution that could accept the data as is, no format change required. The solution also had to work well with the organization’s broad range of applications and support different protocols, including CIFS and NFS. Other requirements were equally important, and are increasingly expected by all types of organizations. This includes highly secure, always available, proven efficient beyond petabytes and future-proofed to scale with inevitable data growth. 

Reaching Medical Imaging Storage Goals

AP-HM uses Scality Ring, a cloud-scale, software-defined object storage solution on standard x86 server hardware, to meet the demanding requirements of its imaging systems and the users. The medical imaging archive they have set up works so well that word has spread, and many departments are now requesting to add new workloads. AP-HM is looking at how the system can help advance major projects like long-term retentions, genomics archiving and genetic testing data repositories. 

Unstructured data in the healthcare environment is growing at exponential rates, fueled by ever-higher resolution imaging across multiple departments, long retention requirements due to both standard-of-care and regulatory requirements, and an aging population that consumes more healthcare. In many large healthcare organizations, unstructured data remains siloed on departmental picture archiving and communication systems (PACS) with expensive NAS archived to hard-to-access tape. Getting data out of silos and into a central software-defined storage system makes that data more easily accessible and reduces capital expenses as well as operating expenses.

The challenges of translating technology to improvements in patient health persist. As we explore the use of ever more sophisticated technologies in medicine — machine learning and AI, biometrics, blockchain, augmented reality, IoT and other new technologies — we need to keep an eye on the foundational technology that we put in place. Data storage is a critical foundational element of healthcare. Keeping patient data is important, but being able to access and act on the data to care for patients is the really critical part. By extension, putting data into the cloud is one thing — managing, controlling, finding and getting use from the data is the brass ring. Investing in modernized medical imaging storage — on-premises object storage, hybrid or multi-cloud — enables healthcare organizations to make better use of limited resources — budgets, skilled IT staff and time to implement.


A 20-year tech industry veteran, Tyna Callahan is the senior director of product marketing at Scality and a former Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) session reviewer and event moderator. She also held product marketing positions at both Riverbed Technology and Seagate, delivering technologies that focused on the customer and use cases for various industries like healthcare, media/entertainment and finance.

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