Cloud computing in healthcare – private, public, or somewhere in between

(Last in a series of Microsoft Blog posts about the cloud in vertical industries. Today: Healthcare.)

Just about everyone I know in healthcare is asking the same question: “What can cloud computing do for me?”

My answer: Plenty. Cloud computing promises enormous benefits for healthcare world. These could include improved patient care, better health for the overall populations providers serve, and new delivery models that will make healthcare more efficient and effective. And cloud computing can help do all of this in a cost-effective way.

Here are some ways the cloud can allow providers to focus less on managing IT and more on delivering better care: It can, for instance, be used to migrate e-mail, collaboration and other traditional applications into the web. It can also be used to share information seamlessly and in near-real-time across devices and other organizations.

For smaller hospitals and physician practices, in particular, cloud-based applications can be extremely cost-effective. These organizations typically don’t have the IT staff required to support new technologies, and the cloud removes the burden of hiring internal IT staff to maintain and service in-house infrastructure for mission-critical applications such as email. In the cloud model, providers only pay for what they use.

Accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical home models will need to easily share information as well as offer more elastic pricing models than traditional licensed based offerings. That means that as demand increases, hospitals and other healthcare providers don’t need to ramp their infrastructures up and down.

The cloud also gives large provider networks the ability to strengthen relationships with their referring physicians and in turn, their patients. In today’s landscape, hospitals and health systems are continuously striving to offer new services and benefits to referring physicians so that they don’t lose patient referrals to competing providers. With cloud services, such as private-label email, hospitals and healthcare systems can provide domain names with secure email to physicians at a very low cost, while creating a vehicle for loyalty. Both Advocate Health in Chicago and Methodist University Hospital in Memphis have leveraged Microsoft Exchange Online email services to this end, and more are rolling out similar programs across the country. 

HIPAA Regulations Remain Barriers to Full Cloud Adoption

To be sure, concerns about data security and HIPAA regulations remain deterrents to wide-spread cloud adoption in our industry. The notion of moving most or all of a heathcare providers’ IT resources , including patient data storage, to a cloud service still is cause for concern among providers large and small. When providers were given a choice between a public- or private-cloud model, there is still a strong preference toward private clouds, with 79 percent of healthcare respondents indicating that they would be more favorable towards cloud computing if the platform was private and not shared.

The value of the cloud can be leveraged by any sized healthcare organization, and in any combination that they want at a comfort level that is right for them at this time. For example, a multi-site provider organization can use SharePoint Online – an intranet portal – within a private, secure online network to facilitate collaboration and information sharing amongst hospital staff.

The healthcare industry and technology providers are working to ensure that cloud computing offerings are secure and meet the regulations of the HITECH Act in the way data is stored and funneled in the cloud. As those assurances emerge, we expect that over the next three to five years, we’ll see more providers embracing the benefits of cloud computing. We’ll see an increase in the use of online services for business applications, such as email, CRM and file-sharing. And we expect to see an increased adoption and mixture of private and public cloud deployment, with some larger organizations even experimenting with the cloud to create and sell custom applications. The possibilities of the cloud are endless for health organizations.

Posted by Steve Aylward

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