Is Healthcare in “the Cloud”?

Cloud computing represents a different way to deliver computing resources than the traditional on-site IT infrastructure. While it is widely believed that “the cloud” provides a greater level of security, the infrastructure is more scalable, it allows providers and patients to be more collaborative, and it will help decrease and stabilize IT costs, the healthcare industry has been slow to adopt this computing model. What is the cloud, how does healthcare use it now and what is the future?

What is the cloud?

The cloud, or cloud computing, is a reference to an on-demand, self-service Internet infrastructure that allows the user to access computing resources at any time and from anywhere. The cloud is not a new technology, but rather a different model of delivering these computing resources. Some examples of non-healthcare applications include Google Docs and Office 365. Some better-known healthcare applications include Microsoft HealthVault and cloud-based EHR solutions.

The cloud includes 3 basic archetypal models:

1. Software as a service (SaaS): Applications (ie, EHRs) hosted by a cloud service provider and made available to customers over the Internet.

2. Platform as a service (PaaS): Development tools (ie, operation systems) hosted in the cloud and accessed through a browser.

3. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): Outsourced equipment used to support operations, including storage, hardware, servers and networking components. The user typically pays on a per-use basis.

There are 4 deployment models in cloud computing:

1. Public cloud: A cloud service provider makes resources available to the general public over the Internet on a pay-as-you-go basis (ie, iCloud).

2. Private cloud: A cloud infrastructure that is operated for a single organization. In this model, the data center supplies hosting services to a specific group of people (ie, Microsoft Azure Stack utilized in a private data center.)

3. Community cloud: Several organizations with common concerns share a cloud infrastructure (ie, Salesforce Community Cloud).

4. Hybrid cloud: The cloud infrastructure can incorporate multiple cloud models. Often in this type of cloud, an organization might provide and manage some resources within its own data center but might have others provided externally.

How does healthcare use “the cloud”?

Traditionally behind the IT curve, healthcare has been slow to adopt a cloud model for several reasons, including concerns related to security and compliance, cost, lack of understanding, and cultural resistance. However, over recent years, healthcare organizations in growing numbers have become ready to embrace the cloud. The strategic benefits have been proven to trump previous reservations. According to the HIMSS Analytics 2016 Cloud Survey, many healthcare providers already are using or planning to use the cloud.

Organizations are becoming more willing to trust the cloud with protected health information (PHI). Healthcare providers have tested cloud platforms with back office applications first, with plans to leverage cloud solutions to manage analytics, PACS storage and rolling out patient-facing applications. For these reasons, the cloud has shown to be a mission-critical tool designed to help hospital, health system and other healthcare organizations foster innovation and collaboration, garner intelligence, and scale their infrastructure internally and to the patient.

Healthcare organizations are tripling the use of cloud services. However, this is only one portion of the full story. In 2014, the cloud’s primary purpose in healthcare was believed to support HIE and data storage. Just two years later, the cloud is now being leveraged for a full range of functions, including patient empowerment. Looking into the future, the cloud is going to play a large role as more healthcare organizations look to deploy telemedicine solutions, mobile health applications, and remote monitoring tools. These trends are inevitable as organizations work to implement value-based care programs in alliance with the Affordable Care Act.

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