Cloud and healthcare IT

By Geoff Webb
08:34 AM

While many industries are reliant on information technology to deliver services and drive innovation, none is so deeply entwined in IT than healthcare.  Whether it’s federal government mandates to move towards fully electronic information processing, or the explosive growth of consumerized tools like tablets and smartphones, the healthcare industry both shapes, and is shaped by, the technology it uses.

As such, it should be no surprise that the potential impact of cloud computing is being felt, with mixed feelings, most acutely in this industry.

Cloud, as a platform, has been sometimes dismissed as nothing more than a new name for old technology.  That’s understandable – cloud doesn’t rely on anything especially new nor are the business models especially novel.  After all, companies have been delivering software services over the internet for some years.  However, simply examining the constituent parts of cloud misses the fact that cloud represents so much more than a lot of virtual servers accessed through a browser.  Cloud is as much the effect as it is the cause; it is both the technology and the way that the technology is being used.  Cloud may be made up familiar building blocks, but the end result is something radically new.

The chaotic cloud

The reason that cloud has such an impact is because it throws out the rulebook for the specification, selection and delivery of IT servers.  Cloud doesn’t just change the rules for the way that the healthcare industry will think about information technology – it potentially renders the very concept of a rulebook obsolete.

Cloud computing enables business units, groups, and even individual users to select and purchase IT services and resources in order to meet short term goals, and then to discard them when the need is no longer there.

Cloud delivery models change the way that everyone, potentially, operates within their own IT infrastructure, and puts the power firmly in the hands of the user of the IT service, rather than in the central IT function.  Vendors, seeing the opportunity to bypass the traditional (and time-consuming) central IT selection and purchasing processes are quickly retargeting their efforts directly on the end users of their services.  No wonder then, that cloud and chaotic are rapidly becoming synonymous.

Turning healthcare IT on its head

While the ability for users to find and purchase specific services to meet their needs is clearly a huge benefit in terms of responsiveness and alignment to business needs, this “organized chaos” is the very antithesis of good security.  And for an industry that handles so much sensitive information, any security impact is not something that can be lightly ignored.

The poster-child (or perhaps poster-children would be more accurate) is the growth in cloud storage.  Names like Box, Dropbox, SugarSync, and many others are opening up an entirely new frontier in storage, sharing and collaboration.  The ability to rapidly and cheaply (or even for free) upload large files of information to share with potentially anyone on the internet is incredibly useful.  Couple this with cross-platform support that enables files to be uploaded from one device and viewed on another and it’s little wonder that the information-heavy world of healthcare is embracing cloud storage as a lifeline in a sea of slow and complex file sharing options.

What’s often shocking to organizations as they start to look at the opportunities to use cloud storage is just how pervasive use is already within their network.   While healthcare organizations of all sizes continue to ponder the right approach to adopting cloud services, the fact is that the horse has most definitely bolted, and any barn door closing at this point may be little more than symbolic.  Use of services like Dropbox is exploding – Dropbox recently reported over 45 million subscribers and estimates a million files uploaded every five minutes.

With services like Dropbox and Box offering multiple gigabyte storage for free, the quantity of files being stored by their tens of millions of users is simply staggering.  Although such services will generally encrypt any information uploaded to them, they manage the entire security process themselves.  For snapshots of your weekend away in Florida that might be perfectly ok, but for anything more sensitive, leaving the protection in the hands of an, albeit well-intentioned, third party is simply not going to meet either security best practices or regulatory requirements.

And for an industry that must remain trusted custodians of highly personal information about patients, the risk is especially acute.

How to harness the cloud

The good news, however, is that while the current situation could charitably be described as somewhat chaotic, there is reason to think that things will begin to settle down.   The solution is for organizations to adopt this facet of consumerization in much the same way as they have with all the others – to provide guidance and the tools to let individuals make their own choices.

So rather than trying to shut down use of cloud storage entirely, we should expect to see more and more healthcare providers instead offer tools to simply and securely use the ones already in place.  Need to collaborate with other professionals around the world and want to share files?  Then by all means use the cloud collaboration service of choice and, critically, here are the tools to keep the data safe while you do it. 

Such tools are most likely to be transparent layers of encryption technology that quietly (and quickly) encrypt anything you move up into the cloud while keeping you in charge of the all-important encryption key.

There are some minor complications (now your collaborators need access to the key as well – but that should be handled for you in the background as far as possible) but the important point is that, once these approaches become mainstream, the ability to fully embrace cloud storage to share knowledge and collaborate of solving difficult problems becomes as safe, if not actually safer, than anything we’ve seen before.

And that’s going to make everyone happy.


Geoff Webb is Director of Product Marketing at CREDANT Technologies.