Health care in the cloud: A storage solution, or security risk?

Image archives expanding by up to 40% per year

Faced with growing amounts of electronic records and digital images, hospitals are now looking toward the cloud as a solution to their data storage needs, Laura Landro writes at the Wall Street Journal.

About 15% of U.S. health care systems are using cloud-based storage—which allows for the exchange of electronic health data across multiple devices and locations—for their medical imaging, according to data from Accenture. The consulting firm predicts that more than half of the nation's health systems will use cloud computing for data storage in the next three years.

Marketers of cloud services say that offering health care providers with instant access to medical imaging over a secure network can help speed diagnoses, reduce the need for duplicate images, and protect patients from unnecessary care. Cloud-based storage also helps doctors make quick and easy comparison between recent and historical images, Landro writes.

Interest in the technology has increased in tandem with the growing need for data storage. U.S. health care providers typically perform about 600 million imaging procedures annually, and the detail and resolution of the images continually improves—leading to a need for more storage. Hospitals are required by law to retain the data for seven years, and many keep back-up copies. As a result, image archives are expanding by as much as 40% annually, according to AT&T's ForHealth group.

Case study: Why one system opted for the cloud

Some hospitals, like Henry Ford Health System, have determined that storing images in the cloud would be cost-efficient. The Detroit-based health system produces thousands of digital images each year—25,000 patient heart images alone—and  in 2011 opted for AT&T's cloud service, rather than investing nearly $200,000 in new hardware and software upgrades to its existing archiving system.

Previously, locating archived heart images could take up to a day, according to Kevin Yee, administrator of cardiology at Henry Ford. Now, immediate access to the images means "our providers can just focus on providing the most effective and efficient care," Yee says.

Weighing benefits, security concerns

However, privacy and security concerns have slowed adoption of cloud storage, according to Nahim Daher, an analyst at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Cloud-storage vendors store data at multiple sites, and the provider "doesn't know where the data is sitting and doesn't have direct oversight into who is looking at it," Daher says.

Vendors have begun offering customers assurances that they are in compliance with security standards and patient-privacy laws, Daher says. He also notes the cost advantages of cloud storage, saying, "With the cloud you have more recurring costs you can finance out of operating funds, as opposed to digging into your capital fund, and you have way less responsibility for maintaining, upgrading, and protecting all this hardware every few years" (Landro, Wall Street Journal, 4/8).

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