More clouds on the horizon

Report: Mark Nicholls

Given the task of archiving today’s huge data files, not to mention additional services demanded of hospital IT staff, cloud computing could reduce many headaches. Via a healthcare IT supplier that offers cloud computing, a hospital would be able to use, over the Web, virtual hardware that provides higher levels of storage capacity and computing resources.

In addition, almost any kind of healthcare IT application could be provided, e.g. for electronic patients’ records (EPRs), computerised physician order entry (CPOE), e-prescribing and financial and administrative systems.

‘In a scenario where healthcare providers are looking at automating processes at lower cost with higher gains, cloud computing can provide an ideal platform in the healthcare IT space,’ concludes Sujith Eramangalath, industry analyst of Medical Imaging, Healthcare IT and Life Sciences IT at Frost and Sullivan. Additionally, the healthcare IT supplier can centre the infrastructure anywhere in the world, e.g. India, Africa, Brazil and China, where overheads are lower, which potentially could lead to cost reductions.

Accessibility issues

Currently, healthcare IT suppliers provide applications over the Web as a service through a subscription model (Software-as-a-Service - Saas) to hospitals and primary care centre. With cloud computing, the suppliers could also provide infrastructure and applications as a service on a pay-per-use model, with hospitals using ‘rented servers’ rather than hardware owned and managed by themselves. ‘Cloud computing could be seen as a boon to healthcare IT services as a number of hospitals could share infrastructure with a vast number of systems linked together - reducing operational costs but increasing efficiency,’ the analyst pointed out. It would provide real-time availability of patient data for doctors, nurses and other support services within and well beyond the hospital, because medical professionals can access an EPR from any Internet-enabled device without installing any software.

Security: Private or hybrid clouds?

Given the importance of patient data privacy and security – everywhere – Sujith Eramangalath advised private clouds for hospitals because they provide ‘…greater control on the overall information processing systems and processes. However, he pointed out: ‘…private clouds can be expensive for small and medium-sized hospitals as the cost involved in setting up and maintenance is much higher. Private clouds are most suited for large hospitals and large hospital groups, which would gain from the flexible computing environment, quality of service and advanced security.’

A combination of in-house and external IT resources – a hybrid cloud - would be preferred among healthcare organisations. ‘Since the hybrid cloud is a mix of private and public clouds, it would allow IT managers to switch applications back and forth between the clouds,’ he suggested. ‘Hybrid cloud would provide a high level of interoperability and meet the dynamic data requirements of hospitals. One of the most significant benefits of cloud computing is that it provides a scalable architecture for the hospitals to continuously add applications which may run on the cloud architecture.’

A key benefit of cloud computing is that costs are dependent on usage of the IT resources with the service provider illustrating a detailed cost breakdown that would help hospitals control costs.

But there are areas of concern such as issues of jurisdiction, security and access to patient data, particularly if the cloud computing suppliers to European hospitals had servers located in different parts of the world. ‘There could be issues in applying European data protection laws in the location of the server,’ the analyst explained. ‘Currently, there are no clearly defined views or laws for sharing patient data across the clouds and access of patient data in cloud architecture,’ he said. ‘IT vendors, who provide cloud computing services, must ensure maximum security to the sensitive patient data.’

However, Sujith Eramangalath believes the adoption of cloud computing would help standardise the infrastructure for healthcare IT solutions, in the current highly disparate situation.

07.07.2010

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