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Connecting to the Cloud

Cloud computing is enabling the next generation of data management in health care.

Rohit Talreja, Product Manager, Healthcare and Life Sciences, Google Cloud


As the volume and variety of health care data continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly challenging for health care organizations to manage their data and effectively mine it for useful insights into patient care. Unlocking the value of complex, disparate data can yield significant results in the form of patient outcomes and operational efficiency. Increasingly, health care organizations are looking to install cloud-based infrastructure to help extract insights from data that drive cost reduction and improve patient and physician experience.

The power of the cloud

Data is often siloed into private IT systems and, as a result, rarely made available to external parties due to associated technical and operational burdens. This has made it extremely difficult to port big data analytical methods and artificial intelligence tools developed for other industries into health care.

Despite early challenges with siloes, data is playing an increasingly important role in the overall health ecosystem. Providers and technology vendors are now prioritizing data interoperability through open standards to enable continuity of care across health care venues. An important outcome of this is the creation of large, diverse datasets, sourced from multiple organizations. These datasets reveal patterns or associations not easily discovered in smaller samples. They also enable a holistic understanding of the entire patient context — daily routine, genetic makeup, population-level trends in the ethnic group or region — that helps increase the accuracy of diagnoses and treatment plans compared to data points in isolation. Making health care data transparent and easily shareable (with the appropriate privacy and security protections in place) represents a tremendous opportunity for both individual health care organizations and the overall system.

Data transparency — the ability to easily access and operate on data no matter where that data is located or what application generated it — enables the sharing of data between organizations to support collaboration, innovation, and improved health care. Many health care organizations have turned to cloud providers to help jumpstart data transparency initiatives. Cloud providers help enable these initiatives by making it easy and cost-effective to securely host and share data online.

Cloud-based infrastructure can provide an ideal foundation for health care organizations to manage and make sense of the growing volume of health data that is available. Cloud service providers can serve as a catalyst for turning data into insights because their core competencies — complex data management, analytics at scale, machine learning — are complementary to the clinically-focused expertise of provider organizations.

In addition to facilitating sharing, cloud providers also provide a robust IT platform with native security and privacy features, high availability, low operational overhead and global connectivity. They can operate at a scale that creates an optimal price-to-value equation. Digitally-minded health care organizations can use cloud services to take advantage of other cutting-edge technology, such as integrated analytics and machine learning tools, and reduce the need for individual researchers and clinicians to become experts in data science.

Managing the risks

Undertaking any health data initiative requires special care due to the unique sensitivity around patient information.

Health care organizations that are considering initiatives focused on data transparency must consider issues such as: controlling with whom they share data and for what purpose, entering into the appropriate agreements (e.g. business associate agreements, data use agreements, etc.), obtaining approval from relevant oversight committees (e.g. institutional review boards), and obtaining necessary patient consents. To address these issues, administrators can implement differential privacy techniques such as granting different levels of access to different audiences based on individual permissions or usage rights. In addition, data de-identification can enable population-level analysis while protecting individual privacy.

Today’s technology can help organizations manage many of these risks. While some IT professionals worry that data initiatives like moving to the cloud may take considerable effort without immediate payoff, there can be both immediate and long-term benefits. For example, to enable advanced data management, organizations often go through a technological modernization that can almost immediately result in reduced operational overhead or lower total-cost-of-system ownership. In the long term, data modernization efforts are the critical starting point for providing physicians and health systems the tools to improve quality of care and enable population health.

Modern infrastructure to enable the future

Implementing cutting-edge data strategies and modernizing infrastructure is a journey that must be undertaken deliberately. It involves the interplay and transformation of technical, operational and administrative, legal and other business units.

A number of health care institutions and provider networks have already started the transformation process to make their datasets discoverable and available. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Science and Technology Research Infrastructure for Discovery, Experimentation, and Sustainability (STRIDES) Initiative is an example of an organization using cloud computing power, combined with data transparency, to improve health care. By using the cloud to help researchers discover and authenticate against these biomedical datasets, and by making these datasets ready for researchers to perform scalable analytics and data science, the NIH is ushering in the next generation of biomedical discoveries.

Cloud computing-based data analytics is playing an increasingly important role in how health care is delivered. Organizations with complementary core competencies — patient care, data management and analysis, artificial intelligence — need to continue to work together on shared datasets to achieve breakthroughs on health care’s greatest challenges.