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Does Healthcare Use The Cloud Differently?

When was the last time you walked into a grocery store looking for an apple and there was only one type to choose from?

Even in those downtown convenience stores—the ones that might carry a couple of produce items—don’t have just one apple. They probably have at least two—a Granny Smith and something a little sweeter. In your typical grocery store—the one you or your family does most of its shopping—how many different types of apples are lined up in bins or displayed on tables? Probably closer to six or more (and that’s not including anything organic).

How does healthcare cloud services related to an apple?

Beyond an apple a day keeps the doctor away, there are just as many (if not more) cloud options—many saying they’re tailored specifically for healthcare—but it’s often hard to even understand if and why healthcare might need to evaluate cloud solutions differently from other organizations.

There are some folks say the cloud is the cloud. It’s the same for everyone. But is an apple just an apple? Not if you can’t stand the sour taste of a Granny Smith or if you hate the mealy texture of a Macintosh. To you, an apple is very specific. That’s exactly the same when it comes to healthcare cloud.

“Go run to the cloud”—that’s what several of the cloud vendors were yelling at a recent HIM (that’s health information management) conference a couple of weeks ago. But what a lot of vendors and healthcare professionals miss with marketing mumbo jumbo and sales letters is discussing what specifically healthcare organizations need from the cloud.

What most people don’t realize when assessing healthcare cloud solutions is that many have proprietary data centers that are based on logic that might not quite fit what you need or are really looking for. They might not be securing your data to your policies and procedures (remember these folks are business associates and should have a signed agreement with you!). If you have to bend procedures to fit a specific cloud framework, that’s a telltale sign that your current solution is probably not a great fit.

Let’s be clear the cloud is not simply one thing.

Before rushing into the next big cloud solution, I want to take a few minutes going over the basics of healthcare cloud options.

You might have heard some of the lingo already. The terms private public and hybrid cloud are flying around the internet and through talk tracks of sales guys to the point that everyone probably everyone has heard of them, but might be a little foggy on what each is and why each might be useful.  All of these terms are related to how resources on your networks, servers, storage, applications and services are shared.

Private cloud? A private cloud is when your organization owns the computing resources you’re using. You retain exclusive control over its use and operation. This might be important when you’re dealing with sensitive protected health information—especially when deciding between using a public cloud like Google versus something else.

Public clouds? A public cloud option is going to available to many tenants using the same system—that means the same hardware, storage and network devices through an internet connection. You are paying for your usage, with costs based on the capacity you’re requiring.

In a public situation, you have less control over your cloud environment than if you were running a private cloud. When using a public cloud, your cloud provider is dictating configurations, security and availability of specific services. If you require tailored solutions because you have custom software or platforms that have very specific requirements, you’re probably going to have a hard time getting a square peg in a round hole. One rule of thumb to work with when it comes to public clouds?

If you can’t get more than 80% of your organization’s functionality resolved through their standard cloud solution, it will cost less money and time to invest in something else (even something you own and maintain outright).

A hybrid solution? A hybrid cloud is a combination of public and private that allows you to have more control over sensitive or critical data. Your applications will likely be hosted in a private cloud and a public cloud will likely manage assets that have lower security risks (for instance, marketing might be low risk compared to any patient-related function).

Why might your organization want to opt for a cloud solution?

Cost reduction—investing in heavy capital expenditure, such as expensive hardware to run your business off of, can be too expensive to stomach. That’s in addition of the cost of staffing resources to deploy and maintain your resources. The cost of the cloud makes needed information technology solutions much more affordable.

Scalability—if you are thinking about opening new clinics or want flexibility in your environment when you need more computing resources, cloud solutions will help you be able to pay for the infrastructure that best fits your needs more so than shelling out up front for hardware.

Streamline your operations—lastly, some cloud options offer services that healthcare organizations can take advantage of that streamlines connections to other systems and applications by securely sharing information. Think about how you might interface your EHR platform to other systems, including accounting (for instance).

So, what are some things healthcare organizations should consider when thinking about cloud?

When considering a move of data or applications into the cloud, as a healthcare organization you should be mindful of a handful of concerns:

HIPAA Anyone?—the big elephant in the room is probably the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and related regulations. Stringent on organizations that deal with protected health information and how you enforce data security across your entire organization AND with other associates that have access to your data (including cloud vendors!), you should be evaluating how your cloud solution is abiding by data security to keep your patient records secure. That means whoever you use for a cloud solution, they should be able to confirm they are abiding by your specific security needs (that is, they are following your security policies and procedures to the t).

Environmental Standards?—another huge consideration for healthcare organizations is the standards maintained by your cloud provider to support data integration, interoperability and portability. Standards-based cloud architectures will help ensure that data from different departments, associates, or organizations are readily accessible to your users and patients when they need it. With an eye toward the future, your cloud solution should consider how they will be moving your data to other popular healthcare applications as they get developed and become mainstream healthcare products.

One last note—the cloud is an extremely popular term. And being so widely used, there are often misconceptions and misunderstandings around it. While many organizations have been moving to the cloud for some time now, determining what you expect from the cloud will best guide finding a solution that fits your organization and its needs.

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