After years of skepticism over the merits of moving to the cloud, it appears the healthcare industry has become much more positive about adopting cloud services. The growth in cloud adoption in the industry is such that the global healthcare cloud computing market is expected to reach $51.9 billion by 2024 as providers turn to cloud-based solutions to manage patient data like electronic medical records.
Of course, the benefits of cloud services go way beyond storing patient data, but also offer opportunities to leverage real-time data analytics and gather data from IoT devices and wearables that can augment traditional treatment options. This article will examine the benefits and risks of cloud computing in healthcare, but first, let’s look at some of the key trends influencing the growth.
Six Benefits of Cloud Computing in Healthcare
Moving to the cloud offers a number of compelling benefits to healthcare providers, all the way from reducing costs, to increasing scalability and data accessibility, to offering analytics capabilities. We’ve listed some of the main benefits briefly below:
1. Lower Data Storage Costs
First and foremost, cloud migration offers healthcare providers a cost-effective way to store patient data. Storing patient data in a third-party data center eliminates the need to pay upfront for physical hardware and services, as a provider can purchase a SaaS, IaaS, or PaaS subscription from a cloud service provider.
That means the only cost a healthcare company needs to pay is the monthly subscription fee of the cloud provider. With many cloud providers offering customizable subscription options, a company can also pick and choose what features they want to use, and pay an additional fee for more advanced features like data analytics.
At the same time, a cloud is a secure option (when managed carefully), so providers don’t have to make the decision to put cost-efficiency before patient security, meaning there’s little drawback to making the move.
2. Greater AI and Analytics Capabilities
Cloud services are also popular among healthcare providers because they have AI and analytics capabilities that can offer a holistic perspective of patient data. Collecting patient data and storing it in one place makes it easier for healthcare professionals to analyze that data and develop insights they can use to enhance patient care or operational performance.
An analytics system provides an opportunity to augment the traditional healthcare experience. For instance, healthcare providers can measure the success rates of different types of treatments and medicines to find out which is the most effective at treating patients.
Above all, data analytics helps a medical organization to personalize treatment options and provide actionable intelligence that it can use to make informed changes to its service and perform more efficiently in the future.
3. Increased Patient Data Accessibility
In medical organizations that use traditional legacy systems for managing patient records, it is very difficult for medical professionals to share data. Cloud computing enables medical professionals to retrieve patient data on demand without having to waste time searching through legacy systems in silos.
Increased patient-data accessibility improves the healthcare experience for patients because doctors are free to share data with each other to offer personalized healthcare with more accurate diagnoses.
It also helps in terms of regulatory compliance, particularly with regards to regulations like the GDPR where enterprises are required to give data subjects prompt access to data whenever they request it.
One of the advantages of cloud storage is that healthcare providers can upscale their data storage needs in line with patient demands. For example, the subscription-based payment model of many cloud service providers enables healthcare organizations to purchase new resources when they need them.
So whenever there is an increase in patients, providers can simply add new resources to their subscription plans without having to pay for expensive hardware. This makes healthcare providers more able to adapt to periods of increased demand.
5. Enhanced Data Security
Keeping patient records safe and secure is one of the biggest challenges that healthcare organizations face, and cloud computing provides a solution to this problem by adding new security capabilities. Most services come with security options like data encryption, identity access control, automated updates, and logging tools to protect private data from unwanted disclosure.
Storing data in the cloud also means you don’t have to store medical records on a local server on site. This in turn reduces the need for physical security controls to protect onsite medical records. Moving medical records offsite enables a medical organization to benefit from the advanced security controls of a cloud service provider.
Of course, moving to the cloud doesn’t mean that healthcare organizations can outsource their data protection responsibilities. The key is to identify where your regulatory responsibilities to patients start and end.
6. IoT Functionality
Cloud services give healthcare organizations an opportunity to collect data from the Internet of Things (IoT) devices and wearables. By connecting to these services medical professionals can provide digital health services in real-time that enhance the patient experience. For example, IoT devices can monitor patients’ heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose.
It can also be used to help monitor long-term conditions like Parkinson’s disease, issuing alerts to medical professionals and family members whenever there are any changes in the patient’s routine or if patients don’t take their medicine.
IoT devices and wearables also provide an opportunity for healthcare organizations to deploy sensors and monitors to collect data that they can monitor in the cloud. Monitoring data in the cloud enables providers to generate new insights that can indicate ways to improve operational efficiency.
4 Risks of Cloud Computing in Healthcare
While moving to the cloud enhances a medical professional’s ability to access patient data, it still has vulnerabilities that can lead to data breaches. Knowing the vulnerabilities of cloud computing is essential for mitigating those risks and reducing the likelihood of incurring a fine for non-compliance with regulations.
1. Regulatory Compliance
Patient data is one of the most sensitive forms of personal information that healthcare providers hold, and is protected under regulations such as HIPAA and the GDPR. As part of the requirements of these regulations, healthcare providers have a legal obligation to protect the data of patients and to notify them about data breaches.
Failure to protect confidential patient data can result in a hefty fine, so it’s essential to ensure that you have the necessary controls in place to protect patient data during and after cloud migration.
Security measures like access controls, authentication measures, and storage security all need to be deployed to verify that patient data is adequately protected against unauthorized disclosure.
2. Security Controls
One of the biggest challenges that arises from moving to the cloud is knowing where the cloud provider’s responsibility for security controls starts and a healthcare organization’s begins. For example, many organizations that move to the cloud are often unsure if they or their cloud service provider is responsible for monitoring stored data.
It’s not uncommon for cloud providers to refuse to take responsibility for implementing particular security controls. Unfortunately, ambiguity over security controls can lead to security vulnerabilities that put patient data at risk.
The only way to address this challenge is to communicate with your cloud service provider and find out what security measures are in place, and what controls you’re responsible for implementing to protect your data. As a general rule of thumb, you can outsource some security controls to a cloud provider, but you can’t outsource your responsibility for protecting that data.
3. Storage reliability
Selecting a cloud service provider that is equipped to support your workload is critical for avoiding downtime. If your usage requirements exceed what a cloud provider can deliver then you might not be able to access your data on-demand or experience performance issues like latency, which will affect your operational effectiveness.
Conducting thorough research on cloud service providers and making sure that they have the bandwidth to support your usage needs will minimize the risk of incurring unforeseen downtime.
4. Loss of Control
When moving data to the cloud, healthcare organizations give up direct control of their data and infrastructure. If the data was stored on-site then the organization would have complete control over access to that data and the security controls used to protect it. This isn’t the case in the cloud where a cloud provider stores the data off-site.
As mentioned above, healthcare providers still have an obligation to protect data that’s stored by a cloud service provider, which means they have to trust a provider to implement the necessary protections to prevent that data from being exposed or to stop the service from experiencing downtime.
The best way to mitigate the loss of control is to research the SLAs offered by cloud service providers and to do your due diligence to investigate what security controls they use to guarantee that you always have access to business-critical data.
Why Some Healthcare Organizations are Reluctant to Move to the Cloud
While many healthcare enterprises have committed to cloud migrations, there are many others who are reluctant to make the transition. One of the main reasons for this reluctance is the challenge of protecting patient data in a new environment.
Many providers have entrenched legacy systems they use to manage patient data with existing security controls, and undergoing a cloud migration would mean changing those existing measures and introducing new ones, which increases the risk of a data breach.
In short, a cloud migration increases the risk of a data breach if the organization doesn’t implement the necessary controls. Data breaches are financially devastating to healthcare providers because the disclosure of patient data comes with harsh financial penalties and possible loss of the customer’s trust.
For example, HIPAA states that healthcare organizations have a responsibility to protect the Protected Health Information (PHI) of patients. Disclosure of PHI incurs fines under a tiered system, with fines ranging from $100 per violation to $50,000.
Examples of Healthcare Companies Using Cloud Computing
While some healthcare companies remain reluctant to move to the cloud, there are many high-profile companies that have been much more enthusiastic about making the move to the cloud to enhance their existing processes. This section will examine some of the most well-known healthcare companies using cloud services to enhance their service to patients.
One healthcare company that makes extensive use of cloud computing is AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical provider that uses a mixture of public cloud services and natural language processing to gather operational insights.
Right now, AstraZeneca is using cloud services to collect data on the performance of its Covid-19 vaccine, tracking global vaccine delivery and monitoring adverse effects as the vaccine is distributed across the globe.
If AstraZeneca didn’t have a cloud-based infrastructure then it would be impossible to collect and analyze the high volume of patient data generated during the vaccine rollout. In this sense, cloud computing is business-critical for AstraZeneca to collect and process data at this scale.
In 2020, healthcare provider 3M underwent a cloud migration to AWS. At the time, 3M CIO John Turner explained that AWS would “deliver the agility, speed, and scalability 3M needs to launch new business processes and service models: and expressed an interest in using technologies like analytics and machine learning “to gain greater insights.”
For 3M, the cloud offered an opportunity to become more data-driven and develop new products by enhancing the organization’s analytics capabilities. As 3M CTO David Frazee explained, “by going to AWS we can focus our R&D team on the science of healthcare. For us that means analytics rather than IT, enable us to attack the healthcare industry’s cost and quality challenges.”
3M’s migration illustrates that cloud services don’t just offer healthcare companies scalable computing resources, they offer new analytics capabilities that are invaluable for providers who want to develop better products and services for patients.
In 2019 CVS Health unveiled plans to launch 1,500 local HealthHubs, physical locations that would provide local healthcare services, and leverage data analytics to provide personalized patient care. As CEO Larry Merlo explained “our aim here is very simple, to turn data into insights and then insights into action,” and “uniting CVS Health with Aetna provides us direct access to an unparalleled breadth of data.”
By collecting data from local HealthHubs CVS Health could begin to better understand customer healthcare requirements and develop a strategy to build more personalized experiences for patients to maximize engagement.
This customer-first approach illustrates that healthcare providers can use cloud computing to gather operational data and use it to provide a more tailored healthcare experience to the customer with personalized interactions.
Cloud Computing in Healthcare: A Risk and an Opportunity
Moving to the cloud does come with some substantial risks, but it presents a tremendous opportunity for healthcare companies to enhance patient care. All of the risks can be offset by conducting in-depth research and understanding what security measures they need to implement to protect data that’s hosted in the cloud. Part of that includes knowing what responsibilities your cloud provider has, and what yours are as well so that you don’t leave your company open to legal or financial risk