HIT makeover, public health style

By Kate Spies
11:47 AM

How do you measure a makeover? In this case, neither by the blueness of the eye shadow, nor the height of the heels.

Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS) wholly reconditioned its data network. The nation’s third largest public health care system has now integrated separate server solutions to a single, unified virtual data center.

Leaders from the organization are looking to quantify the makeover through increased cost reduction, system efficiency, and patient care.

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As a comprehensive web of health facilities throughout Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, CCHHS serves about 500,000 patients each year through ambulatory and ED care.

The system’s original IT infrastructure centered on a series of disparate servers, some dating back to 2003 and 2004, said Marlon Burns, CCHHS’s CTO. The system’s storage capability was comprised solely of a proprietary solution for the hospital’s Cerner Millennium EMR database.

“Our goal was, within some years, to look at a move to virtualization,” Burns said. CCHHS began considering a private cloud option around 2004, but didn’t have the capital to invest in a proper build-out. “Our goals were to eventually realize savings both in the physical recovery of space in our data center, but also a reduction in cost for HVAC and electrical demands.”

When CCHHS reached the capital requirements (nearly $3 million) for a major IT project and began considering options, virtualization vendor Datalink’s solution seemed to mirror these goals. “It’s an approach to architecting a data center which is different from what you might consider a fragmented strategy, where an organization is looking at servers, application, networking and storage, and trying to figure out how those all fit together,” said Kent Christensen, Datalink’s virtualization practice manager.

Accordingly, Datalink’s FlexPod technology dispels CCHHS’s need for puzzle piecing. The architecture integrates computing, network, and storage components into a single solution, incorporating technologies from NetApp, Cisco, and VMware. With the interconnectivity of FlexPod, Christensen said, a hospital solution “can be more easily extended into things like the private cloud.”

Initially, Datalink worked with CCHHS to virtualize its Windows environment. Since this enhancement, the care system has tapped into Datalink’s existing infrastructure to leverage cloud technology, and incorporate application providers as well.

“So we’re leveraging the existing gear and through that, the application system, making it more nimble and more efficient,” said Datalink account executive Dejan Perovic. “We’re also trying to make it more official with the application providers, and that’s where the true savings are going to come in as well.”

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Burns expects CCHIS’s savings from the project to reach seven figures. “With the additional plan that relates to our EMR system – the database being consolidated and the realization of other benefits – we expect that our ROI in the next three years will be approximately $2.7 million,” Burns added. By year five, Burns said he expects the net savings to reach about $5.4 million. “We believe this could go higher,” he added. “We’ll spend less because we can leverage this platform.”

Referencing back to the cost of the makeover – nearly $3 million – Burns, Perovic, and Christensen stress the project’s inevitable return on investment – and not just in the fiscal sense.

Burns feels the initial hump of expense will be justified through revamped patient care.

“So upfront, you do realize that out-of-pocket expense. But the end-result, well, sometimes, to be honest, the result isn’t measurable by ways of dollars and cents,” Burns explained. “I think it is a worthwhile investment, but it definitely needs to be targeted and kept focused on the fact that it means making sure that the patients are served better with it.”

“They’re reducing wait times for doctors and patients, they’re delivering things on virtual desktops,” said Christensen. “So there’s a lot more than just ‘I spent a dollar, and the ROI is one year,’” he said. “The other side of that is, ‘Look at all of the benefits we got.’”

Other facets of the makeover besides the virtual datacenter will solidify its worth in the future, Burns continued.

CCHHS primed one of its hospitals with a second FlexPod system and back-up library on a separate electrical grid. This promises the ability for fail-over if issues occur with the system’s central hub, located at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital.

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Looking ahead to the five-year point, Burns envisions success for CCHHS’s IT; the project will streamline data servers to a single, efficient solution, reduce maintenance cost, and ensure security through fail-over capabilities.

As the ultimate measure of the makeover, though, the designers and participants will be looking for improved patient care.

“So I’ll put it this way: Our CEO made a great point today in a meeting as we talked about IT and IT investments,” Burns said. “He made the point that the focus always needs to be, in any healthcare institution whether public or private, that whatever that technology or solution you’re going to put in place, whatever it is, you need to make sure the purpose of it is ultimately to help our patients. In a sense they really are our ultimate customers.”