If you’ve ever accessed your Gmail archives from your smartphone, uploaded a photo album through Flickr, or used Dropbox to share a document with a colleague, you’re no stranger to the cloud. As its ethereal name suggests, the “cloud” is an intangible but ubiquitous presence in our tech-laden lives, allowing us to access all our data across multiple devices and from any location.
As an IT strategy, cloud computing took the business world by storm, allowing companies to store massive amounts of data virtually, rather than making a huge investment in developing and maintaining their own information system storage. Yet health care has been a relative late-comer to cloud computing, largely because of the industry’s unique data security, regulatory, and patient privacy concerns. The mandate to widely adopt electronic medical records (EMRs), however, is expected to change that – a recent report by research firm MarketsandMarkets projected health care-related cloud computing will become a $5.4 billion global industry by 2017, encompassing both clinical and non-clinical applications.
There are several attractive benefits to cloud computing in health care:
- Data access: When patient information is stored in the cloud, providers can access lab results, imaging scans, and other pertinent test results at any time and in any place, allowing for improved care coordination and better decision making. As the move toward accountable care organizations (ACOs) drives the need for a better flow of information between primary care providers, specialists, and case managers, clinical use of the cloud is likely to expand to include mobile applications that deliver data to tablets and smartphones. Cloud-based platforms can allow collaboration between providers in real-time, from nearly any device that can connect to the Internet.
- Data integrity and resiliency: The large cloud service providers can build an IT infrastructure far beyond anything a hospital or physicians group could manage on its own – so there’s very little downtime spent on system maintenance. Data integrity is maintained through redundant backup systems that just wouldn’t be feasible or cost-efficient in a smaller system.
- Economies of scale: Cloud computing relies on resource-pooling to offer massive amounts of computing power for a lower price. Small hospitals and private physicians groups, in particular, cannot necessarily budget for IT staff, new servers, or the space to house them – yet they can take advantage of the cloud to share information digitally.
- Speed to innovation: By leveraging the economies of scale discussed above, cloud-based services can be up and running quickly, and system upgrades can be performed cheaply, with minimal downtime. On-site systems, in comparison, typically involve a long and arduous initial implementation, followed by major software updates every few years. Health care organizations can manage data with more agility when working in the cloud.
Cloud computing at the bedside
It’s easy to see how cloud computing benefits IT staff, nurse informaticians involved with EMR implementation, and even the hospital’s bottom line. But there’s also reason to believe that we’re going to start seeing innovative, cloud-based applications that benefit nurses and patients at the point of care – like the one in this case study, describing how cloud computing has improved a nurse call system. The featured technology is said to “merge pull cord technology with the power of cloud computing and mobile devices to allow for wireless paging and generated staff response reports.” When a patient rings for a nurse, the call signal is processed in the cloud, and alerts are sent to nurses in the form of texts, emails, pages, or phone calls. This allows nurses to be more efficient on the floor, as the closest staff member can respond quickly to the patient and no one is tied to a nursing station to track patient call signals.
Cloud-based computing is also a boon to home health nurses, giving them easy access to accurate data, allowing them to document visits and update charts in real-time, and freeing them from the cumbersome daily synchronization routine.
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