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Publications total: 16
  Feb 22nd,2016

The Promise of Health Clouds

Introduction:

Cloud computing is a relatively new paradigm in the information technology domain and is being adopted by industries from different sectors. Cloud technology solutions offer a wide range of IT systems and functionalities as a service to clients over the network. A cloud service provider maintains the hardware and the software infrastructure in data centres and offers them to the client as a service through the internet against an upfront payment. Cloud services are being offered to the clients in the follow three service models:

  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

Along with the industry from other sectors, the healthcare industry is also rapidly adopting new technological solutions with the objective of improving its services to the care receivers (Healthitboard.health.govt.nz, 2013). At the centre of the healthcare transformation drive is the health information technology, with cloud computing adoption as its champion cause. In the 21st century the focus is more towards patient empowerment achieved through the adoption of care delivery models that believe in collaborative engagements and information sharing. Cloud solutions are able to provide the avenue and the infrastructure to the healthcare centres, research institutions and health insurance agencies to connect with each other over the network, collaborate towards improving care delivery paradigms and have access to high performance computing services at highly competitive prices. Cloud solutions provide state-of-the-art data processing and archival resources to healthcare providers at a fraction of the capital infrastructure cost. Cloud services also allow archival and sharing of massive data sets in the form of electronic health records and diagnostic image data in a seamless manner over the network. Since the data is available on the network healthcare centres and doctors can get immediate access to patient records and greatly improve their diagnosis and treatment outcomes. However, electronic healthcare data contains sensitive health related information of patients and cloud service providers need to ensure that robust data security solutions are place to prevent any compromise with data privacy and integrity (Impact of Cloud Computing on Healthcare, 2012).

Depending on the security requirements of the healthcare centre three different cloud deployment models are available namely the public, private and the hybrid cloud. Given the sensitive nature of healthcare records it has been observed that healthcare organized mainly prefer the private and hybrid cloud models compared to the public model .Cloud service can also be offered in three different service models as mentioned earlier. The Software as a Service model is more ideal for small practices in terms of being highly cost effective. Similarly, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a service models are more ideal for large healthcare organizations and research centres that are considering developing their own cloud applications, expect robust security solutions and demand scalability of the resources. Cloud computing is still in its early stage of development but slowly it is emerging as the most critical component of the modern, information-driven healthcare industry (Impact of Cloud Computing on Healthcare, 2012).


Health cloud benefits:

The benefits that can be derived by healthcare providers from health clouds are huge and far reaching as far as improving the process of healthcare delivery is concerned. Health clouds offer a highly agile and efficient platform to share huge volumes of data across geographical boundaries within seconds and this greatly reduces the delay i disease diagnosis and treatment delivery. Doctors catering to new patients are able to retrieve their historical medical data and make more informed decisions based on their past clinical history. With regards to medical research, health clouds are providing the avenues to efficiently store mammoth data volumes emerging from next generation sequencing projects. It will not be wrong to comment that in today's context, health clouds have actually become an integral component of biological and biotechnological research and development. Small and medium-sized drug design units need to carry out extensive DNA sequencing but they do not have the capital to afford computational resources to process the data. Health cloud vendors are playing a very crucial role here by offering the necessary computational and data storage resources at highly competitive prices and thereby ensuring continuation of research (Impact of Cloud Computing on Healthcare, 2012).

After the recent healthcare reforms in the United States thousands of new patients started receiving insurance benefits and this translated to an increasing pressure on the already overburdened healthcare centres. With health clouds taking the burden of data storage and processing away from the hospital IT infrastructures they are able to divert their resources on more crucial sectors such as electronic medical records and clinical decision support. Modern health cloud solutions also provide resources to get deep insights into consumer behaviour and market trends through real-time analytics. Healthcare providers can utilize these analytical insights to improve the outcome of their services and cut down on costs due to resource mismanagement and wastage. There are many healthcare providers who still rely on their legacy IT systems for data storage and processing and this has created serious security issues. Given the highly sensitive nature of the data that is being processed and stored, these IT systems cannot guarantee the protection of data privacy and integrity. State-of-the-art health cloud solutions negate all of these data security apprehensions through their client-server architecture that implement robust data exchange security protocols. No other industry is better poised than the healthcare industry when it comes to benefiting from the cloud computing paradigm. Considering the facts that healthcare data processing and storage requires conforming to stringent government regulations and the changing focus of the healthcare industry requires making services more patient-centric, health cloud solutions can ensure fulfilment of all these requirements with minimal use of capital, infrastructure and human resources (Impact of Cloud Computing on Healthcare, 2012).


Health cloud security issues:

Skyhigh Networks, which is a prominent cloud security vendor states that 13% of health cloud services are at a high risk of data breach while around 77% face medium data breach risks. A major health cloud provider called Community Health Systems, Inc. was at the receiving end of a major cyber attack in 2014 when it lost around 4.5 Million patient records from their system. Forensic analysis carried out later traced the attack to China and there is strong possibility of the involvement of the Heartbleed malware (Munro, 2014). Another major security concern surrounding health clouds is an increasing gap between the defence measures in places the vulnerabilities that are increasing with each passing day. While the cloud infrastructure management needs to ensure the integrity of the entire system hackers and intrusive agents need just a single vulnerability to launch an attack (Munro, 2014). Given these critical concerns there are still many organizations that are not yet ready to pass the responsibility of hosting and securing their sensitive data to outside players. A survey carried out by HIMSS Analytics' on the trends of cloud computing adoption in healthcare sector revealed that 83% of executives who were contacted reported using cloud services in their organizations. These may be encouraging signs but the threats are very real as well and they need to be properly addressed. Figure 1 below nicely illustrates the current trends of cloud service adoption by the health care providers (Columbus, 2014).


trends of cloud service adoption in the healthcare sector
Fig 1: trends of cloud service adoption in the healthcare sector (Columbus, 2014).


Conclusion:

As healthcare providers evaluate the benefits and threats surrounding the latest health cloud paradigms they need to understand that competing organizations are also on the lookout for the best cloud solutions that would give them the leverage over their contemporaries. This in no way means that organizations should become complacent with their evaluation of the security threats. Healthcare organizations should take all the necessary measures to ensure that their decision to migrate to a cloud platform is taken after all the facts are properly evaluated. Considering the benefits of health clouds there is no doubt in the fact that more and more organizations will adopt the technology in the near future and any delay in the process is only due to the organizations weighing their gains and risks in a very thorough manner.


References

Columbus, L. (2014). 83% Of Healthcare Organizations Are Using Cloud-Based Apps Today . [online] Forbes.com.
Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2014/07/...

Healthitboard.health.govt.nz, (2013). Use of cloud or hosted services for managing health information | National Health IT Board . [online]
Available at: http://healthitboard.health.govt.nz/standards/use-...

Impact of Cloud Computing on Healthcare. (2012). 1st ed. [ebook] Cloud Standards Customer Council, pp.1-18.
Available at: http://www.cloud-council.org/deliverables/CSCC-Imp...

Munro, D. (2014). Over 90% Of Cloud Services Used In Healthcare Pose Medium To High Security Risk . [online] Forbes.com.
Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danmunro/2014/09/01/ov...

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