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Cloud computing key to precision medicine but security concerns persist

Informaticist Nephi Walton says that the cloud can be used to aggregate and harmonize data and argues that in certain ways it is more secure than what hospitals can handle on their own.
By Bill Siwicki
07:17 AM
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cloud computing precision medicine

Washington University School of Medicine informaticist Nephi Walton said cloud computing will become the platform for aggregating and harmonizing data but healthcare organizations should understand why they want to choose the model. 

Precision medicine promises to change the healthcare paradigm and create a powerful new model of care designed specifically for each individual, offering a much greater likelihood of effectiveness. But to realize much of this vision requires eliminating data silos and aggregating information from all sources – Internet of Things, patient surveys, genomic data, EHRs and more – into a central repository that gives clinicians worldwide access to this data.

Many believe the cloud will become the primary platform for data aggregation and harmonization. And that’s the direction Nephi Walton, MD, informaticist and clinical geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine, is heading.

“People are misled a bit by the benefits of cloud computing in this domain,” Walton said. “A lot of people are touting the advantage of data anywhere, which indeed is an advantage of cloud computing. But that is not the major role that the cloud will play in precision medicine. It’s more related to the size of the data and the ability to analyze and access data quickly. And the ability to plug into cloud services of different types. There are certain things that lend themselves to cloud computing more than others, and in precision medicine it is more the large data sets involved.”

A caregiver may have huge data sets, entire genomes, gigabytes on an individual. Historically, healthcare has placed all this data on huge servers; but when one has this large a data set on each patient, one really needs to use distributed computing, Walton explained. 


  Learn more at the Cloud Computing Forum HIMSS17. Register here.
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“When you think about who is doing it and allowing huge sets of analysis, you think of someone like Google; it is using database cloud computing technology,” he explained. “The advantage is setting up all of these large data sets in something similar to Google Big Table – a database structure different from standard relational databases as it allows one to use a distributed model that enables rapid access to large amounts of data. Here you can quickly access lots of information and process it quickly.”

That is where the power will be in terms of cloud computing and precision medicine, he added.

“You will have someone’s genomic data in an accessible database where you can access all the people with certain conditions to do real-time analysis and apply new knowledge to large data sets quickly,” he said.

Walton will be speaking on the benefits and challenges of using cloud computing with precision medicine at the HIMSS and Healthcare IT News Cloud Computing Forum in Orlando, Florida, on February 19, during the 2017 HIMSS Conference & Exhibition. Walton’s session is entitled “Precision Medicine and the Cloud.”

One of the big challenges with cloud computing and precision medicine is people’s fear of data security, Walton said.

“The thing people do not realize is that the cloud is probably in some ways more secure than what a lot of people are doing now,” he said. “I know of some organizations that are fearful of the security of putting the data out there in the cloud but that actually have serious gaping security holes that expose them to far more risk than would happen with cloud computing. Anytime you allow remote access to data your weakest link in security is your employees’ passwords. If you have any reasonable security, the weakest spot will be at the employee level.”

Walton said most companies that provide cloud computing services have excellent reliability and security and can provide these things on a scale that would be difficult for smaller organizations and even challenging for larger organizations.

“The issue is it is not cheap,” he added. “But when you look at all the people you employ for security and backup and maintenance and so forth, for smaller organizations it makes sense to turn to the cloud; for larger organizations, it depends.”

In the end, healthcare organizations must understand why they wish to get into cloud computing before they actually do so, Walton advised.

“Understand if you are doing it for the right reasons, that you have done a good analysis of not just the real obvious things and are not just jumping into the ring without fully understanding why,” he said. “If you do it from the perspective of you do not want to be the person who manages servers and worry about backups and data security, essentially what you are doing is putting off a lot of your IT expenses to someone else. You can build a cloud in-house. The question is can you do it more efficiently than someone who's job and mission it is to do that. You have to make sure you know why you are doing it and the benefits you will get from it.”

HIMSS17 runs from Feb. 19-23, 2017 at the Orange County Convention Center.


This article is part of our ongoing coverage of HIMSS17. Visit Destination HIMSS17 for previews, reporting live from the show floor and after the conference.


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