- Microsoft has long served as a critical component of health IT infrastructure for organizations of all sizes, with the Windows icon most visible on provider desktops across the care continuum. Despite its ubiquity as the go-to Operating System (OS) in healthcare, the tech giant has lagged behind in providing a healthcare cloud offering — until recently under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella.
Microsoft cloud operations, namely Azure, have fueled the company’s recent resurgence as it quickly gains ground on market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS). According to a RightScale cloud market report, respondents saw an 11% gain in Azure users between 2017 and 2018 (34% to 45%) compared to AWS’s single-digit bump of 7% (57% to 64%). What’s more, Microsoft has outpaced its competitors Google, IBM, VMware, and Oracle to become firmly entrenched as the second-largest cloud service provider.
Considering its position as the core technology underpinning most healthcare systems — from EHR systems to administrative programs leveraging Office 365 — Microsoft enjoys the position of being a familiar tool to professionals in the industry. And the continued shift to Microsoft Azure is only further fueled by Epic Systems leveraging the cloud platform for the development of its predictive analytics and artificial intelligence solutions.
As Insight Cloud Solutions Specialist Mary Ann Pitts explains, several factors are leading healthcare executives to choose Microsoft as their healthcare cloud partner.
Familiarity and reliability
Microsoft is already a trusted business partner for the healthcare industry. And considering the widespread use of its OS and suite of business tools, the company is able to seamlessly move most on-premises solutions into the cloud.
EHR systems, in particular, are a sticking point for providers because of their clinical, legal, and financial implications. “Making sure Azure works properly with their EHR technology is top priority. Fortunately, the one thing that truly works perfectly with Microsoft is Microsoft. It’s intended to work with the EHR system and ensure compliance,” says Pitts.
Security and compliance
As a core system within most businesses, Microsoft always has one eye trained on security, which is also a primary concern for organizations and business associates that must comply with HIPAA standards.
“The security that Microsoft offers is a different level than anybody can really do on their own,” Pitts maintains. “The largest hospitals have already adopted Azure because of what Microsoft can offer for health data security and privacy.”
As opposed to on-premises computing resources that require daily maintenance, Azure is managed by a team of IT professionals whose primary focus is the performance and security of the cloud platform.
“They’re all very up-to-date. They are audited on a daily basis. They are checked and third-party reviewed. There’s constant upkeep on these particular security features that hospitals can’t do,” adds Pitts.
The move to the cloud also safeguards against Protected Health Information (PHI) ending up on local machines, tablets, and smartphones.
“In the Microsoft cloud, you’re able to have all features necessary to protect PHI, which are not guaranteed in on-premises environments,” Pitts says.
Ease of migration
Because Microsoft is interfacing with Microsoft, the move from on-premises to a cloud environments becomes a seamless transition. Even in a phased approach, disruption to workflows is negligible.
Generally, the migration begins with the cloud working in conjunction with a server on site. The move can begin with less critical applications, such as email, and progress to mission-critical applications, such as SharePoint, with minimal interruption to services.
“End users don’t know whether or not it’s in the cloud. They don’t. It’s already there,” Pitts notes.
Fortunately, for organizations planning the move from Windows 7 to Windows 10, that process is also a much simpler transition than OS migrations of the past.
“They think that going to Windows 10 is an undertaking, but it really isn’t as much as it is a hardware-driven budgeting expense to ensure the hardware supports the software,” adds Pitts.
Furthermore, end-user familiarity with Windows 10 and Office 365 at home readies them for the move to the newer OS. Obviously, drivers and updates are necessary, but they are no longer crippling.
While the healthcare industry has a history of purchasing over subscribing (owning versus leasing) IT infrastructure, it stands to benefit significantly from the shift to licensing computing resources, especially when maintaining core systems.
“When the hardware and software is on premises, IT staff has to go to each department to fix, change, and manage these systems. When it’s in the cloud, IT staff can do so remotely and focus their energies on other tasks,” says Pitts.
Additionally, new features can be brought online without disrupting day-to-day business.
“The IT staff doesn’t have to manage ongoing security updates because they are handled by the cloud service provider,” Pitts explains. “Over a year, their Windows system will look totally different, yet they never did anything. No longer will organizations need to rip and replace hardware and software. With these subscriptions to Azure and Office 365, changes occur over time without having to dedicate time and resources.”
Flexibility and innovation
Scalability and access to the latest hardware and software are key drives of cloud adoption across all industries. In an industry known for mergers, acquisitions, and expansion, the flexibility of the healthcare cloud is able to facilitate smoother integration and shift the focus to innovative uses of data rather than making that data accessible.
“These subscription services are intended to have them move quickly,” Pitts emphasizes. “We need to be able to change on a dime. When something new comes out, we have to be able to, as a whole IT community, make sure that everybody can take advantage of it. That’s the benefit the healthcare cloud provides. It allows the industry to jump forward.”
Providers don’t want to be in the business of managing data centers. Health IT developers want to bring innovative solutions to their clients quickly to improve clinical decision-making and health outcomes. Microsoft Azure is built to work hand in hand with its own products, making the cloud platform an attractive choice for healthcare organizations.
That being said, a managed service provider can benefit organizations by owning the the task of making smart cloud computing decisions.
“That’s the value that we bring to our clients, and we leverage the partner relationships that we have with the largest manufacturers across the world. And that’s where healthcare organizations benefit from working with Insight because we can let their IT team focus on the bigger, tougher, strategic projects that they need to get done for their CEOs while we’re doing all the grunt work,” Pitt concludes.