Health IT

Health IT Sets Sights on the Cloud

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The sky’s the limit for applying cloud computing to healthcare, but so far the technological revolution has been slow to get off the ground.

Government incentives to embrace electronic health records and the imperative to slow the ascent in the cost of care point to the potential benefits of accessing data and software remotely. Cloud technology, in particular, holds promise beyond just efficiency gains, offering the analytical muscle to mine massive amounts of information for “Big Data” discoveries that could improve care in the future.

Yet technologies that have been embraced by the financial and tech sectors haven’t taken off in healthcare. In part, that’s due to patient privacy and safety concerns, but also reflects the healthcare system’s inherent complexity, from administration to billing to collections.

“Cloud technologies are beginning to be adopted, but there’s still quite a bit of maturity that has to be gained in order to make them the option of choice,” said Ken Bradberry, chief technology officer of Xerox Healthcare Provider Solutions. “Right now we’re still in the novelty stage.”

A “Wait and See” Approach

Mark Lush, a principal in Deloitte LLP’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice, notes that the sector has largely adopted a “wait and see” approach toward the cloud, at least until the right technologies and policies are in place.

“Data privacy and security are certainly the two main reasons why the healthcare industry has been a little bit slower to adopt it,” said Lush.

With new technologies come new risks, of course, and the Obama administration has been working with healthcare and IT providers to ensure patient privacy and security. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which is leading the government’s health IT push, has provided guidance on protecting patient information when using mobile devices and proposed a plan to reduce any safety risks that may arise from electronic records—such as mistakes in ordering medications.

David Muntz, the principal deputy national coordinator at the ONC, believes the resources are out there to ensure the cloud can be used effectively, but healthcare providers, vendors and patients need to understand more about how the data is being safeguarded.

“We need to make sure we are organic in terms of our approach to practices so that we can adjust to a very exciting future,” Muntz told HealthBiz Decoded.

A Sector Divided

Muntz, whose office is in charge of distributing $27 billion in federal stimulus funding to encourage the shift to electronic health records, said cloud technology is key to that effort because it “democratizes access to capabilities that could have only been afforded to people who had the resources.”

But so far, the rollout is largely proceeding on two tracks, with the cloud playing more of a supporting role for hospitals and other major providers while gaining more traction among smaller doctor’s offices and ambulatory services.

Hospitals, for example, have embraced cloud-based services like data analytics and mHealth mobile applications. But these institutions aren’t employing the technology for “mission critical” services, such as handling medical records, said Bradberry.

Many hospital software vendors don’t offer such mainstream cloud-based services, while issues such as performance and financing have also slowed adoption, said Bradberry, noting that Xerox provides comprehensive healthcare cloud services when it’s the right fit for a client

But it could take another five years before most vendors they take full advantage of the technology, said Bradberry.

Cloud technology is proving more popular among smaller-scale providers like doctor’s offices and ambulatory services, where the costs and performance requirements are more predictable.

”Probably a great deal of enthusiasm for the cloud comes from individual physicians who want to have that very low barrier to entry,” said Muntz.

A Bright Horizon

He sees even more potential for using the cloud in healthcare analytics – collecting large amounts of data from different locations and looking for meaningful trends.

“It encourages meaningful conversation – how to use the data we’re collecting…to have a favorable impact on the lives of individuals and the population, or to improve healthcare reform and payment models,” said Muntz.

Ultimately, growing demand for the flexible service and accessibility offered by the cloud – from both healthcare providers and patients – will bring the sector up to speed, predicts Deloitte’s Lush.

Doctors now coming out of medical school have fully experienced the digital world, while patients increasingly demand easy access to their records. That shift toward consumer-driven healthcare will not only speed the adoption of the cloud and other new technologies, but could change the doctor-patient relationship for the better, he said.

“All the crazy bureaucracy that creates quite a bit of the distrust and frustration among patients is going to go away, and the room is going to be filled with these new technologies that I think will create an opportunity for a more intimate relationship,” said Lush.

The cloud, it turns out, has the potential to revolutionize what we know about healthcare performance and outcomes—and even bring us closer to the fabled doctor-patient relationships of yore.

Faster, please.


Photo courtesy of Gerd Altman via Pixabay