One byproduct of the massive move toward digitization in healthcare over the past 10 years is a huge – and growing – amount of data. That's a great thing for smarter decision-making. But it's a real challenge when it comes to finding a place to keep it all.
A look at Healthcare IT News headlines from the past few years shows how providers large and small have been grappling with the changes.
In 2010, we reported on a survey from HIMSS and Dell that showed how data centers of small- and medium-sized hospitals weren't prepared for the "wave of data" that will soon be inundating them.
Regulatory issues and compliance requirements in were cited as significant hurdles. Server proliferation – with respondents averaging 75 servers per hospital – and application complexity made for further complication.
But as Jeremy T. Bonfini, executive vice president, global services for HIMSS, put it then, several "megatrends," including the "aging wave, the increasing demand on regulatory security, and the rise of home care" would massively increase the amount of data that CIOs and directors of IT are "going to have to deal with."
In 2012, BridgeHead Software's second-annual Healthcare Data Management survey reminded us that, worldwide, the healthcare industry generates approximately 30 percent of the world's data, "a massive amount that increases day after day."
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their data volumes had increased over the previous year. But just 26 percent reported having "robust, tried-and-tested" disaster recovery plans in place.
"Backup and disaster recovery is a complex landscape for healthcare," wrote BridgeHead CEO Jim Beagle. "With the enormous amounts of digital information that hospitals have to manage, it is increasingly difficult to ensure backups are completed in the available time windows and that the appropriate copies are made to the appropriate storage media to enable the execution of a comprehensive DR strategy."
Earlier this year, we pointed to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which showed that beyond mere storage, healthcare data systems in healthcare are lacking when it comes to optimal handling of complex information – particularly "omics" data.
Existing data systems aren't sophisticated enough to make optimal use of ever-expanding patient information, the report showed. That problem that will only be exacerbated as data grows apace – fueled by innovations such as next-generation genomic sequencing – and becomes cheaper and more available to health care providers.
As genomics, epigenomics, proteomics and metabolomics advance, the study shows, the ability to store large-scale raw data for future reference with patients is critical.
"Areas of DNA that were once considered genetic 'junk' are now known to play important roles in gene regulation and disease," said Justin Starren, chief of the division of health and biomedical informatics in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "We need dynamic systems that can reanalyze and reinterpret stored raw data as knowledge evolves, and can incorporate genomic clinical decision support."
Or consider newer 3D imaging, which about one in five hospitals is making use of these days. "It's very data-intensive," said John Hoyt, executive vice president of HIMSS Analytics. "3D mammography uses eight and a half times more storage than 2D. It just eats up disk space."
Having grown exponentially over the past decade, the amount of healthcare data is supposed to triple in the next three years, according to storage giant EMC. Beyond that, it's been predicted that it will eventually grow to a mind-boggling 15 zettabytes in the not-too-distant future. For comparison's sake, the entirety of the World Wide Web is estimated to be just 4 zettabytes.
Even on a localized and much more manageable level, the challenge is acute.
"That would be on my mind if I was a CIO – what in the world am I going to do three years from now because I'm doubling my data," said Hoyt. "There's not enough good real estate inside the hospital, so get out of the building."
Some have argued that storage issues might be an impediment to progress in healthcare. Hoyt doesn't think so. To the extent that the challenges remain for providers on that front, they "will be money, but not the technology," he says. "The technology responds."
And so it has been, as shown, for instance, by the big movement toward cloud storage and virtualization, and phenomena such as big data-as-a-service, which is pegged for big growth in the next three years, according to a 2012 report from TechNavio.
''With the technological advancements in the field of healthcare, the required space for patient data storage is increasing exponentially," explained a TechNavio analyst. "Healthcare providers have increased the medical records and samples of patients. Many healthcare organizations have realized recently that they are running out of space to store their assets.
"Therefore, the healthcare sector is witnessing the emergence of healthcare data-as-a-service. Cloud computing enables healthcare providers as well as patients to access medical information at any time and from any location. However, many such organizations are still analyzing the feasibility and relevance of such cloud computing solutions in their IT operations."
As data grows apace, enterprises are turning to big data-as-a-service technology from EMC, Microsoft, IBM and Google, according to the report, to "track the performance and behavior of information in their IT systems."
"The mass storage industry is responding to the demand for storage, because it's everywhere," says Hoyt. "It's not just medical. Everybody's demanding it.