Don't create a vendor-neutral silo: Why your image archive should include the cloud

By August Calhoun
08:05 AM

With the exponential growth in digital medical images, healthcare providers are taking a serious look at their archiving technology. There are lots of vendors in the market, and a wide variety of options for creating archives.

The greatest percentage growth in medical image archiving over the next five years is expected in the area of the vendor-neutral archive (VNA). Though VNAs come in a variety of flavors, what they all share is the ability to pull data from proprietary PACS and translate them into a universal format for viewing. There are lots of advantages to this kind of platform over a proprietary archive, as it gives the institution greater control over how the images can be stored and used. The benefit that is most attractive to many IT departments is the elimination of the need to migrate data if you change PACS.

Learn to share

The other big advantage is that a VNA vastly increases the ease with which images can be shared. Currently, cloud-enabled VNAs can provide access over the internet using a wide variety of devices. That makes collaborating with a physician in another location far simpler. And though not many EMRs are currently image-enabled, that functionality is on the near horizon. When that happens, images stored in a VNA will be ready immediately for integrating with EMRs to create a comprehensive patient record.

Re-evaluating your image archiving strategy is something that almost every healthcare IT department will be doing in the near future, if they aren’t doing it already. And that strategy needs to be as flexible as possible given the rapid pace of development in all forms of medical information technology.

Take the long view

Healthcare as a whole is rapidly moving toward greater integration of all kinds of data. Beyond individual patient care improvements, the industry hopes to create data warehouses that can provide the raw material for sophisticated predictive analytics in both medicine and the business of healthcare. With rapid change and a lot of unknowns, CIOs need to be careful how they construct their archives.

The biggest danger lies in taking a short-term view of the problem, concentrating on the avoidance of migration costs and the freedom to change PACS more easily. If that is your only focus, you may be tempted to shortchange the system in terms of sharing and interoperability. You don't want to waste your time and money by creating yet another silo, even if it is a vendor-neutral silo.

Look up for answers

How do you avoid this danger? The easiest answer is a solution that connects your on-site archive to a cloud archive. Not only do you get disaster recovery ability, you also gain enormous flexibility for the future. If you invest heavily in infrastructure to keep all your archiving in-house, you lock yourself into a single solution. If the technology makes a big leap forward, you risk being left behind.

With a cloud component to your system, however, you don’t own the massive infrastructure necessary to archive all your data, you own only the on-site storage system necessary for current studies and rent the rest. (And with some cloud archives, you pay on a per-study basis, which means you only rent what you actually are using.) This has two advantages. First, much of your infrastructure costs move from a capital expense to an operating expense. Second, if the technology changes, the cloud vendor makes the new investment, not you. To stay competitive, a secure medical cloud provider makes regular investments in the growth of its infrastructure, and those investments are made with an eye to the future. Your archive moves forward naturally with the technology, giving you the greatest flexibility possible, and it stores your data in a form that is ready to integrate with cloud-enabled, image-enabled EMRs.

If you are concerned about security, it’s time you did more research on secure medical clouds. A good medical cloud can significantly increase the security of your data. (See my previous blog for Healthcare IT News for an in-depth look at this topic.)

The bottom line is that, whatever form of archiving you choose, keep your eye on the horizon. If you look at your feet, you’ll be left behind.