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Healthcare Goes to the Cloud

By Paul Fitzgerald for America's Backbone Weekly
The healthcare industry in the United States is undergoing a rapid adaptation of 'cloud' technology as a means of making medical information available to patients, practitioners and researchers alike. The benefits of massive amounts of data becoming easy to access, analyze and act upon are already tremendous.

Converting medical information from paper to digital and storing them in the cloud allows physicians and specialists to collaborate more effectively in understanding illnesses and ensuring the right treatments get to the right patients at the right time. These are called Electronic Health Records, (EHRs), and they are an official health record for an individual that is shared between multiple facilities and agencies. Think of your last appointment with you GP: Did he pull the file folder off the hanger in the door, or did he pull it up your profile on his computer? Yes, the computer of course.

Understanding The Cloud

The term 'cloud computing' seems to be everywhere these days. In the simplest terms, it means storing and accessing your data and programs over the internet instead of your computer's hard drive. A local area network (LAN) does something similar but information can only be shared with people who are also on the same network.

Cloud storage overcomes this limitation and makes information available to anyone, from any computer or device, from anywhere and at any time, with the right security authorization, of course.

A good example of this is Microsoft's One Drive service. This enables users to log-on and use all of Microsoft's Office Suite, like Word without actually owning it on their computers. Users can store files, and share and download them from the cloud without filling up their own computer.

When it comes healthcare – private practices and hospitals – the cloud becomes much larger. This is known as Software-as- a- Service (SaaS) system. The really big companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Rackspace provide a complete data service that can be 'rented out' by other companies. Most people know of Netflix but few people know the data you are receiving is sent out from Amazon's huge SaaS system.

For healthcare, that means SaaS is "pay as you go," but the volume of data is simply too vast for each user to manage it independently.

For example, in a 2010 National Ambulatory Care Survey "the US averaged 1 billion physician office visits." The cloud makes it easier for doctors to access information from their own records, specialists, medical test results and additional up-to-date-treatments. This allows doctors to spend more time with patients who might need it the most and proves how technology is beneficial on many levels.

Sam Volchenboum, Director of the Center for Research Informatics at the University of Chicago is quoted in InformationWeek saying, "2016 will be the year of liberated health data." He says also this will bring patients more informed treatments, faster rates of innovation and new ways of utilizing healthcare data, leading to greater insights into difficult diseases like cancer.

To truly understand the scale, here is a case study from Amazon Web Services (AWS). Researchers and physicians at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City are trying to unlock the genetic secrets of breast and ovarian cancers. It's a significant challenge since they manage the data from over 2,000 DNA sequences, or about 100 terabytes of information. To put this into perspective: if one byte equals a mile, then at the speed of light 100 terabytes would equal the distance between earth and the nearest galaxy.

"Before the AWS Cloud, we didn't have a way to analyze such a huge data set with our external collaborators," explains Dr. John Matignetti. "It wouldn't have been possible to sift through the data in a meaningful way, analyze it, re-filter it - all of which is critical to our efforts to find the missing links."

Cloud Technology Works

The scope of cloud use in the healthcare today is evident from a 2014 study by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). Called the HIMSS Analytics Cloud Survey, it found that 83% of IT executives in healthcare provider organizations are using cloud services today, with an additional 9.3% saying they plan to.

"In aggregate, 92% of healthcare providers now and in the future see the value of cloud based services for their organizations," the survey states.

To put this in a monetary perspective, says cloud computing generated $100 billion in 2012, which could be $127 billion by 2017 and $500 billion by 2020.

It seems this is also, just the beginning. Consider for a moment the growing number consumer health monitoring devices, which we-as-patients expect to have incorporated in our healthcare process. From the iWatch to the FitBit patients can monitor everything from pulse, heart rate, blood pressure, and caloric intake and sleep. Analyst firm Forrester Research describes this as "the empowered patient."

As it is, healthcare workers spend as much as 50% of their time looking at computer screens, even during exams, says Dr. Bryan Laskin, DDS and creator of a wireless digital communication monitoring system.

"The next wave will increase efficiency further, but allow for more direct communication between healthcare providers and patients," he says.

Healthcare and the cloud is just the beginning and ultimately it's the patients who will benefit from technological developments in the medical sciences.

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