Feature | February 03, 2014 | Williette Nyanue

Keeping Up With Cloud

This article appeared as an introduction to a Comparison Chart on Cloud Storage in the January/February 2014 issue.

Several industries have used cloud solutions for many years, but cloud computing only recently started to be used in healthcare. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), cloud computing is defined as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”1 As more and more healthcare organizations (HCOs) adopt electronic medical records (EMRs), the cloud database has offered an efficient solution for image sharing, particularly in radiology where it is bridging the gap between referring physicians and radiologists.

Utilizing the cloud gives authorized healthcare providers and patients access to medical information — including lab results and imaging exams — anytime, anywhere. This access creates efficiency because the retrieval of information is not limited to a particular office or workstation. However, HCO administrators have been reluctant to embrace cloud computing because of the lack of solutions for perceived challenges. But today, due to the success of early adopters, as well as improvements in cost and security, prospective cloud customers are making more informed decisions on whether or not cloud-based solutions are the right option for them.

Clarifying Cost 

One of the first problems that HCO managers recognized was the unpredictability of total cost. Cloud-based solutions offered HCOs an option to store large amounts of data — primarily from imaging — virtually instead of spending their own money to store and manage data themselves.3 But as HCO administrators looked into purchasing space on the cloud, they realized there was little to no information on long-term cost. Purchasing space on the cloud could become very expensive as practices continued to grow, and administrators were unable to anticipate how acquiring the solutions would affect finances in the long run. 

As more cost information from early adopters has become available, cost models for cloud solutions have become clearer. According to Nadim Daher, a principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan’s advanced medical technologies practice, “Providers are willing to take a closer look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) and decide how a low-capital, operational-based financing model will work for them.”2 

Solving Security Issues

Another issue that prevented many HCOs from adopting cloud-based solutions was security. According to a report by KLAS titled “Cloud Computing Perception 2013: The Hybrid Cloud in Healthcare,” 66 percent of non-cloud users said security was the main issue stopping them from acquiring cloud solutions. “Laws require protection of pertinent information to ensure both confidentiality and privacy, and before a healthcare organization contracts with a cloud organization, management needs to ensure that the cloud can meet the requirements of both Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and meaningful use,” said Suzanne Richins, DHA, MBA, FACHE, RN, chair of health information management and healthcare administration at American Sentinel University.3 In addition to HIPAA, HCOs need to ensure there is a backup in the case of an emergency or natural disaster. 

Again, this apprehension is likely to decrease as information provided from early adopters becomes available and offers non-users the confidence needed to make the leap. According to the KLAS survey, on average, 4.5 out of 5 cloud users said that they felt safe using the cloud.

Vendors are also helping to ease safety concerns by ensuring that solutions are backed by security standards. According to Daher, “Vendors can now tout applications that comply with a wealth of International Standards Organization (ISO) and HIPAA mandates, in addition to numerous new security standards learned in the information and communication technologies (ICT) world.”2 

Furthermore, vendors are making sure they offer safety services along with their solutions. Last September, Ascendian Healthcare Consulting announced a new service line to assist clients with ensuring the confidentiality, integrity and availability of patient data, and Intelerad’s Nuage also offers data protection. According to Intelerad, customers’ image archives are safely managed and proactively monitored by the company’s imaging workflow experts, and by replicating data at redundant data centers located in different states, the solutions are protected against risks of physical disaster.

Bright Future

While there were many early adopters of cloud-based solutions, the overall adoption within the healthcare industry is in its infancy. According to Daher, “Cloud adoption in imaging remains largely confined to the small-scale and outpatient facilities with limited IT staff on hand.”2 However, the forecast for cloud within healthcare remains positive. Daher stated that, “As larger facilities and multisite networks in the United States ramp up their enterprise IT strategy, they all have at least one cloud-based solution under consideration.”2

And there are still many ways the cloud can positively change healthcare. Richins said one area where providers can expect to see the cloud innovatively used is within applications that aid nurses with patients at the point of care. This can already be seen with the DataComm Plus’ Ultimate Caregiver, which leverages cloud computing and mobile devices to allow for wireless paging and generated staff response reports.

As cost, security and IT issues continue to be resolved and more and more HCOs start to realize the benefits of cloud, the solutions will undoubtedly move from radiology and referring physicians and infiltrate other departments within an enterprise. 

References

1. NIST Cloud Computing Program, National Institute of Standards and Technology, www.nist.gov/itl/cloud/, accessed Jan. 15, 2014.

2. Daher N, “Cloud-Based Solutions: Sunny Days Ahead.” Imaging Technology News. 2013: 05:10-11.

3. American Sentinel University Details How Cloud Computing Has the Potential to Revolutionize Healthcare, www.americansentinel.edu/about-american-sentinel-university/newsroom/ame..., accessed Jan. 15, 2014.

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