Research Reveals the Future Prominence of Cloud in Healthcare

Healthcare is one area in which the cloud has the potential to make a major impact. The volume of data continues to grow, and analysis of what it contains goes a long way toward predicting both systemic and individual trends. And that potential is being recognized.

The Cloud in Healthcare

When the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) asked 72 survey respondents working in healthcare about the current usage of cloud computing in healthcare in their countries, they were split: 43 percent said there was a high, or very high, level of usage, and the remainder said that the level of usage was moderate to non-existent. The highest penetration was in the United States, the lowest in Europe, likely due to the challenges in navigating privacy laws and other regulations in the European Union (EU).

However, all expressed optimism that any challenges will be overcome. Sixty-one percent said that cloud will be a decisive factor five years from now, and a further 28 percent said it will be a major factor. By that time, even the EU respondents feel that the cloud will be a major factor in healthcare.

(Read the EIU executive summary report of the research that investigated the role of cloud computing across four other industries in addition to healthcare.)

Electronic Health Records

One key area in which the technology can help people stay healthy is electronic health records. Rather than having history isolated in a file folder in a doctor’s office, and possibly lost if a patient changes physicians, that data can be stored in the cloud, available to any health care professional who needs it (with proper privacy and security controls, of course). That alone can help eliminate situations in which patients receive conflicting advice and medications from physicians who aren’t aware of what colleagues have already prescribed.

Electronic records also expedite the detection of risk factors. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lets interested parties generate health profiles for any county in the United States. Each profile includes key indicators of health outcomes, which describe the population health status of a county, and factors that have the potential to influence health outcomes, such as healthcare access and quality, health behaviors, social factors, and the physical environment.

And in Ontario, Canada, the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) maintains anonymized databases of patient records, available to researchers. These databases are used for everything from evaluating healthcare in different constituencies to early detection of trends that could indicate an outbreak of an ailment, or an issue with a treatment.

Heading Off Problems

These analyses not only tell physicians and governments how they’re doing, they also alert them to the need for preventive treatments, for example, updating measles vaccinations in a location where the disease has shown up, or isolating malnourished populations that need further education about diet. If ailments caused by environmental factors present, the appropriate agencies can be advised so they can investigate and take action to prevent further issues.

All this relies on centralized, accessible records, and people who know how to analyze them. But those records also can be used for less benign reasons, so those centralized records have to be properly secured, and access to them regulated, to protect patient privacy. (Read more about securing healthcare data in the cloud.)

Another, as yet unmined, area for healthcare data is the information from individuals’ wearable devices, which can provide invaluable hints to healthcare providers about a person’s day-to-day state. Device vendors also store data from these devices in the cloud—often a less robustly secured cloud than that of healthcare providers—which puts user privacy at risk.

As long as proper precautions are taken, though, those cloud-based records can help governments and medical personnel create a healthier society.

Of course, the impact of the cloud is felt in industries other than healthcare. VMware commissioned the EIU to survey 360 business leaders who are familiar with IT, half from the C-Suite and half at director level or higher, about the state of cloud computing in their countries, both overall and in five key verticals. Read the mini-brief of the EIU cloud computing report.