The Impact of Cloud Computing on the Health Industry

healthcare embraces the cloudDetermining how best to share, store, and process large amounts of data has been one of the most persistent and problematic endeavors of the healthcare industry since its inception.  How can physicians securely and conveniently exchange patient records?  What is the most efficient way to track data on treatment efficacy?  How can smaller health companies compete with large international players in terms of storage and processing power?

The promise of on-demand computing and storage that is as readily available as running water and electricity is becoming a reality. Companies such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Google have invested billions of dollars to create systems and software which allow both small and large players in the healthcare space to compete on a level playing field.  The technology enabling this equalization is cloud computing.

Cloud computing is the practice of using a network of remote, Internet-based servers to store, manage, and process data, rather than relying on local servers or personal computers.  It is a model which enables ubiquitous, on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services), which can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort.

The healthcare industry has shifted towards an information-centered care model, which necessitates cooperation between healthcare providers, and extensive information sharing and processing.  To support this shift, cloud computing has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade.

Several Cloud Computing Models Offer A Variety of Options for Healthcare Providers

Just as collections of water vapor can be classified into cumulus, stratus, and cirrus, digital clouds encompass several service models.  Specifically, cloud computing consists of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS).

pyramidThe distinctions between these three service models are perhaps best exemplified in the diagram to the right. Software as a Service (SaaS), at the top of the pyramid, is a software distribution model in which applications are hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over a network, typically the Internet. SaaS applications are designed for end-users, delivered over the web.

If a physician or healthcare provider is in need of custom software, data analysis programs, mobile applications, etc., SaaS can provide these resources in an on-demand basis from cloud-based services located around the world.  These options prove attractive for many healthcare companies–a recent HIMSS Analytics Cloud Survey found that 67% of healthcare providers use a Software as a Service cloud model.

Platform as a service (PaaS) is a category of cloud computing services that provides a platform allowing customers to develop, run, and manage applications without the complexity of building and maintaining the infrastructure typically associated with creating and launching an app. PaaS is the set of tools and services designed to make coding and deploying those applications quick and efficient.

Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) is a standardized, highly automated offering, where computing resources, complemented by storage and networking capabilities, are owned and hosted by a service provider and offered to customers on-demand. Customers are able to self-provision this infrastructure, using a web-based graphical user interface that serves as an IT operations management console for the overall environment. API access to the infrastructure may also be offered as an option. IaaS is the hardware and software that powers it all – servers, storage, networks, and operating systems.

Cloud computing can be accomplished through a public cloud, a private cloud, or a hybrid cloud.  Public clouds, which use public Internet and shared resources owned by a third-party provider, are chosen by 23.4% of health organizations.  Private clouds, which dedicate all resources to a single organization, are the most popular–about 37.1% of healthcare providers choose this architecture.  The hybrid model of cloud computing, which performs some functions through private clouds and some functions through public clouds, claims about 36.3% of healthcare providers.

Cloud Computing Provides a Number of Benefits For Users

adoption and useThe advantages of cloud computing are becoming ever more apparent, as the impact of these systems is further explored.  Cloud computing offers information storage, sharing, and analysis tools, which are integral for the modern health service provider.

The infographic to the left summarizes the key advantages cloud computing offers healthcare institutions–reduced maintenance costs and technology-related staffing challenges, and increased speed of deployment. 

The benefits of cloud computing can be organized into two categories–clinical and nonclinical.

Clinical applications of cloud computing are plentiful.  Firstly and perhaps most importantly, cloud computing supports big data sets for EHRs (Electronic Health Records).  These EHRs, which are vital for patient treatment, can be archived and shared with other physicians through the cloud.  

The ease of information transfer that the cloud provides enables more efficient clinical research and long-term statistical analysis, both of which can be life-saving.

It is also important to note that cloud computing makes possible much of tele-health, or mHealth (see last week’s blog post on mobile technology in the healthcare industry!).  Cloud computing can enable record-sharing, tele-conferencing, and data monitoring, all important aspects of mHealth.

Clinical applications like those mentioned above, however, account for only 52.4% of all cloud usage by healthcare providers, according to the 2014 HIMSS survey.  73.4% of cloud applications aid in nonclinical administrative functions, like payroll monitoring and human resource management, and IT functions.

At its most fundamental level, cloud-based collaboration tools can positively impact physician/patient interaction, and grant patients more access and accountability for their own medical histories.

Cloud Usage Will Continue to Grow in Coming Yearscloud table

Cloud computing has already revolutionized the healthcare industry, as more and more healthcare providers use the cloud to modernize their systems and move forward in the age of digital medicine (the
table to the right summarizes physicians’ current and planned uses for cloud computing).  In fact, a research report on the healthcare IT cloud market from 2012 to 2017 found that the value of the market will grow to a staggering $5.4 billion by 2017.

By outsourcing IT functions to a trusted cloud provider, hospitals and physicians are free to focus on patient treatment instead of hardware.  The term “patient centricity” has become the focal point of the modern healthcare industry–allowing patients to take charge of their own medical needs.  Cloud computing, with its contributions towards EHRs and technologies related to integrated care and patient access, significantly facilitates this trend of patient centricity.  Making data readily available, regardless of the location of the physician or the patient, is key to patient satisfaction and improved medical outcomes.  And as healthcare providers continue to recognize this trend, cloud computing will only rise in prevalence.

lower part of cloud infographicThe HIMSS infographic to the left confirms this rise in usage, predicting that only 6% of all healthcare providers will choose not to adopt cloud services in the future.  By allocating shared resources in a dynamic and flexible way, cloud computing allows for a scalable computing infrastructure.  As the value and prevalence of cloud computing grows, cloud services will become a commonplace and necessary aspect of all healthcare institutions.

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