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Why the Healthcare Cloud Holds the Key to Future Innovation

With the healthcare cloud, providers have the storage and computing resources necessary for enabling innovations in care delivery at scale for years to come.

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- Over the span of a few years, the healthcare industry replaced paper charts with Electronic Health Records (EHRs). The adoption of EHR technology and health IT systems by healthcare organizations is responsible for generating volumes of health data.

The ability to manage vast amounts of health data has, in turn, led healthcare organizations to the cloud, and that movement is only set to increase. A Netwrix survey found that 84 percent of responding healthcare organizations stored Protected Health Information (PHI), Personally Identifiable Information (PII), or financial data in a cloud environment, with 69 percent planning to move more sensitive data.

Data storage, however, fails to make use of the cloud’s ability to foster innovative applications and services that can transform bits and bytes of data into actionable information at the point of care. The future of the healthcare cloud rests on the ability of healthcare organizations and health IT developers to collaborate on ways to leverage cutting-edge technology to address the health needs of individuals and populations.    

“This is really hard. It’s really humbling, and it’s really complicated. But if we all work together, we can really save lives at a scale that is unimaginable because of the impact of these technologies,” Eric Schmidt, Technical Advisor and former Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., told attendees at HIMSS18.

To that end, Schmidt urged healthcare organizations to take a multi-tier approach to their data stores. A local, primary data store would still live on premises to support daily clinical and non-clinical operations (e.g., clinical documentation, revenue cycle management).

A second tier of data resembling an unstructured database, he continued, would enable the bringing together of multiple sources and kinds of data in an environment where technologies such as machine learning could be applied.

A belief in the necessity of the cloud for advancing healthcare innovation is by no means unique to cloud service providers. In fact, it very much aligns with what subject-matter experts in healthcare see as the path forward.

“We will see a seamless integration of telemetry and wearable devices that the patient has in their home, with cloud-hosted services and decision support,” says Beth Israel Medical Center CIO John Halamka, MD.

“If you are healthy, these services will be designed to keep you healthy, rather than to simply treat you when you are sick. If you have a given disease or a given problem, the patient and the patient’s healthcare providers are going to track the patient’s progress against a care plan, guideline or protocol. This will all be done with cloud-hosted services.”

Innovative use cases for the healthcare cloud

The healthcare industry is making progress toward achieving the goals of the triple aim: enhancing the patient care experience, improving the health of populations, and reducing the cost of care.

Traditional on-premises health IT infrastructure is having a hard enough time keeping up with the streams of data coming from numerous data sources — such as Picture Archiving and Communication Systems (PACS) and patient monitoring systems at the bedside — and organizing this information into a comprehensive record. How, then, will this same infrastructure be able to support personalized medicine and the petabytes of data produced by genetic testing?

New pilots and use cases for cloud-based medical innovation are popping up across the country.

Speeding analysis of wounds

Using a smartphone application known as Tissue Analytics, clinicians are able to photograph a wound, which is then analyzed, recorded, and stored in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud for clinicians to access and review. Intermountain Healthcare was part of a proof of concept that leveraged an advanced imaging algorithm to measure and track the healing of wounds. Able to integrate with EHR technology from Cerner, Epic Systems, Allscripts, and athenahealth, the technology is now in use at more than a hundred hospitals and eliminates the use of costlier measurement equipment.

Improving remote infant monitoring

The Cardiac High Acuity Monitoring Program at Children’s Mercy uses a database in Microsoft Azure to provide daily monitoring of infants with heart conditions to alert providers about abnormalities (e.g., low or high oxygen saturation). The application, developed by the Kansas City hospital’s pediatric cardiologist Girish Shirali, MBBS, employs an algorithm that analyzes information entered daily by a baby’s family. Previously, responsibility for data monitoring and reporting fell to the family and occurred weekly. The program has reduced costly readmissions by modifying treatments aimed at prevention.

Advancing the treatment of brain conditions

The Cleveland Clinic's Healthy Brains Initiative allows neurologists to gather brain health information from elderly patients using a mobile application hosted by AWS. The application tracks physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, social interaction, and other factors contributing to brain health. Providers are able to collect data efficiently and securely to inform timely clinical decision-making. The Cleveland Clinic program also provides a means of connecting patients with relevant clinical trials (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease) and speed the development of cures.

Analysis of large data sets requires significant computing power, and the cloud is able to make those computing resources available at any scale. The challenge for healthcare organizations and health IT developers remains taking the right approach to the cloud — that is, knowing which resources to move into the cloud and pairing them with the right set of cloud-based services. Fortunately, potential adopters of the healthcare cloud can turn to managed cloud providers to navigate a sea of options and find the right fit.

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