- It would seem that every bit of technology is moving to the cloud. The benefits are obvious: access to your data anywhere in the world, anytime of day, on any device with network access. Moreover, you’re no longer tethered (or chained) to your desk. References to the cloud are as ubiquitous as they are ambiguous. And even products of the digital age struggle to explain where all this information is actually stored. In a recent CDW commercial airing during the NCAA tourney, beloved NBA personality Charles Barkley asks what a cloud system is to find that it’s some kind of single, converged infrastructure. In English, it’s the storage of information at an offsite data center.
Given this ambiguity, how does the health IT industry go about convincing hospitals and their patients to entrust their most vital commodity, their electronic health records (EHRs), to a third party?
Recently, Satish Malnaik, CEO of NextServices, participated in a webinar about the role of cloud computing in EHR systems and implementation. Because the receipt of future incentives hinges on data sharing — health information exchange (HIE), e-prescribing, patient-controlled data — complying with Stage 2 Meaningful Use requirements requires a greater emphasis on access to information.
Here is where the cloud has its greatest appeal: affordability and accessibility. As Malnaik emphasizes, the biggest argument in favor of cloud-based systems is “the fact that you have a lower capital investment.” Hardware storage, maintenance, and security are no longer daily concerns. Areas lacking the physical infrastructure (i.e., rural America) could leverage technology critical to the treatment of patients. Large data management centers full of skilled IT professionals ensure uninterrupted, secure access. Furthermore, these providers of cloud services will be responsible for making sure their systems are compliant, which “gets you halfway to that process,” says Malnaik.
Cloud computing makes even greater sense in light of technological innovations (e.g., hardware, operating systems), increases in the use of smart devices (e.g., Android tablets, iPads), and improvements to cellular networks. Not only can teams of physicians be located in distant offices, but they also can be mobile. Recent natural disasters only reinforce how mobile access can make the difference between life and death during emergencies such as natural disasters.
The opposing argument focuses on the problem of dependability. Dependability refers to a reliable internet connection as well as a responsible vendor. What if the data center closes down? If the data center owns the servers, who owns the information stored on them? Malnaik emphasizes that “HIPAA rules currently do not clarify ownership rights of data on cloud-based systems” — though HIPAA penalties are severe for breaches of protected health information (PHI). However, this should come as no surprise: Legislation has trouble keeping pace with innovation.
If the future of health care relies on getting information in the hands of the right people, then hospitals and patients will have to consider the pros and cons of the cloud.