Is cloud computing in healthcare here to stay?

05.01.2021
10 min.

Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, the interest towards cloud engineering in healthcare has sparked again. According to Technavio, in 2020-2024, the global healthcare computing market will grow by $25.54bn at a CAGR of 23%. Moreover, the source reports that in 2020, the market has raced at an accelerated CAGR of around 21.5%.

Global healthcare computing market 2020-2024

But is the growth just the thing of the moment or a really long-term trend of healthcare software development? We explore the matter below.

Why the interest?

Deploying their systems in the cloud offers healthcare providers a range of unbeatable benefits. While this has been in the air for a long time, the pandemic made these benefits shine bright, fueling the adoption of cloud technologies.

Workload relief

Even before the pandemic, immense workload was a pain point for clinicians. Curiously, it’s not their professional duties that wear them out. Apart from regular clinical workflows, they have to take up some extra tasks not related to their field of activities—namely, paperwork, getting comfortable with providers’ digital systems, etc. According to Medscape’s 2020 National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report, these two issues are among the top five causes of clinicians’ burnout, with 55% and 30% of the interviewed naming them respectively.

Above all those extra tasks, clinicians have to allocate some time to protecting their patients’ personal health information (PHI). Obviously, with the virus slamming at the front door of healthcare systems globally, this is close to impossible.

Here, cloud solutions may come in handy as they may take some critical non-medical tasks off doctors’ shoulders. Data security is typically vendors’ responsibility, at least with SaaS and SaaP service models:

On-Premises vs. Cloud: Key Differences

As we can see, with any cloud model, the level of responsibility for maintaining the system is shared with the vendor at least to a certain extent.

Better interoperability

There is one more common roadblock—interoperability in healthcare. Over the years, providers, vendors, and government agencies have tried to tackle the issue, with no universally positive results so far.

In this regard, cloud computing may work as a powerful facilitator. For example, in 2019 the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (Pittsburgh, PA) deployed a healthcare operating system (hcOS) that works both as a handy platform for providers and a set of tools for healthcare solution developers. These tools can help create an ecosystem of third-party apps working in line with legacy IT systems.

Such a solution could work well within a network of clinics, too. Enabling cross-system interoperability requires standardization to make sure all data that healthcare systems collect and store is in compatible formats.

More value-driving services

Cloud technologies may help providers expand their digital services. In the heat of the pandemic, the demand for telehealth solutions and remote patient monitoring tools has surged significantly, Frost & Sullivan reports:

COVID-driven surge in telehealth, 2020

Interestingly, such solutions rely on cloud technologies for data transmission, storage and processing. They are very flexible, which allows providers to scale up rapidly to meet the demand or scale down when the service is no longer critical.

Allowing patients to attend consultations over the internet, cloud platforms also leverage consumer devices like mobile phones and wearables. This lowers the adoption barrier and contributes to better rapport between patients and their clinicians.

Cloud-based telehealth platforms for virtual visits and/or home monitoring tend to combine several functions. They work well not only for care provision but also for fostering professional communication and knowledge exchange. As a healthcare app development company, we’ve developed such an app as a multi-clinic telemedicine platform, which is a virtual clinic allowing patients to reach their doctors online while ensuring the continuity of care.

Cloud solutions also play an important part in emergency care. In the present crisis, Kinetica, a cloud-based platform enhanced with AI and analytics, helps US emergency respondents monitor critical COVID-19 data in real time. The tool visualizes such parameters as personal protective equipment availability, hospital capacity, the number of test kits, and more for hospitals located in the vicinity. Relying on graphs and diagrams, an emergency response team can make informed decisions on where to transfer a patient to save time and start with treatment immediately.

Improved data management and processing

Cloud solutions allow providers to easily store, manage, and access big data as needed. This improves productivity and contributes to timely decision-making. What’s more, cloud platforms often drive automation in healthcare. One example of this is our BPM automation project for UK care homes, where the SaaS solution facilitated tedious manual tasks as well as streamlined clinical and administrative task management.

There is yet another benefit of cloud data management for healthcare: cloud storage provides for long-term data retention. In the present crisis, this point has come to the forefront: COVID-19 is a new virus, so retaining the relevant data has become critical for finding viable treatments.

Scality, a HIPAA-compliant cloud system from San Francisco, CA, holds structured and unstructured medical data with a special focus on medical images, offering their long-term retention.

These are becoming huge files. One multi-slice X-ray or digital scan, for example, can be gigabytes in size and per file — and that’s per patient. And now think about the number of patients and the retention of all of that.

Paul Speciale, Chief Product Officer, Scality

Apart from providing long-term storage for unstructured medical data, the platform spares providers the need to deploy an extra site for backups to be used for disaster recovery.

Facilitated international cooperation

With the coronavirus having hit over 200 countries, researchers and clinicians from all across the globe have joined forces to overcome the crisis and restore disrupted healthcare systems. Whenever a new diagnostics or treatment method emerges, authors rush to publish it freely on the web and share the data with interested parties. This large-scale data sharing culture would not be possible without cloud technologies.

During the pandemic, the technologies have become paramount for treating patients, and it’s not only about the COVID-19 research or treatment. Proximie, a UK company uniting cloud and machine learning technologies for sharing best practices and expertise, enabled a surgeon from the US to assist in a successful oncological surgery on a patient from London, UK, when traveling was banned due to the pandemic.

Security concerns to address

Even if the security of cloud solutions is the vendors’ responsibility, it may be helpful for providers to learn about common cyber-threats and the ways to mitigate them.

Cloud threats fall into three subgroups featuring the main targets to be affected: data, network, and the cloud environment itself. For data- and network-focused attacks, end-to-end encryption and HIPAA compliance may work efficiently.

End-to-end encryption ensures that malicious actors won’t be able to use the data even if they gain access to it: they will only see meaningless code, not usable personal data. The other valuable protection here is HIPAA compliance. Though the compliance rules have been relaxed due to the pressure to launch telemedicine solutions swiftly, deploying a cloud solution with a HIPAA-compliant vendor is a reasonable step nevertheless.

When it comes to cloud environments, major types of attacks include malicious insiders, abuse of the cloud infrastructure, and erroneously shared access rights.

What can providers do to prevent such risks? No worries, this is not about a tedious daily routine but rather about some due preparation. Namely, employee education. Providers should openly share best practices of using their cloud-based systems, highlighting the risks of sharing one’s credentials with others, even if they are colleagues.

What’s more, providers may ask their cloud solution vendors to prepare clear-cut guides explaining how to work with the cloud environment and in-built apps.

Employee education also helps prevent dangerous mistakes caused by negligence or lack of attention, such as forgetting to log out of the cloud-based system once the work is done.

As for dealing with deliberate malicious actors on premises, it’s vital to delete employees’ logins and passwords once they no longer work with the provider. When left with access to the provider’s digital systems, unhappy ex-employees may become malicious actors.

The post-pandemic cloud

The pandemic crisis has revealed a painful truth—nowhere healthcare systems were fully prepared for the emergency. Consequently, going back to the old inefficient practices makes no sense.

While extensive data sharing in the scientific community may slow down, the use of cloud tech for medical data storage is likely to persist. After all, the pandemic has taught us yet another bitter lesson: data is the king, and when it is siloed, clinicians and researchers may have difficulties making informed decisions to provide quality care. The cloud can scale up data processing, storage, and analytical capabilities of hospitals, research labs, and more in no time. For instance, Huawei deployed a cloud-based AI-powered diagnostic tool in an Ecuadorian hospital in only 14 hours.

But what about telehealth that has flourished during the pandemic? According to the McKinsey COVID-19 Consumer Survey of May, 2020, over 70% of patients are ready to proceed with getting quality care from the comfort and security of their homes. Besides, the tech has won providers’ trust too, with 64% of the interviewed comfortable using it.

To crown it all

The adoption of cloud technologies has been on the rise lately, but the present pandemic has significantly accelerated it. In these turbulent times, the cloud has made many worthy initiatives possible, such as international cooperation at an unprecedented level. But will the cloud remain this important further on? We believe it will.

Obviously, the pandemic will end sooner or later, but it’s not the only driver of cloud adoption. Given the rise and development of remote care and the steady demand for it, healthcare cloud solutions are most likely to stay as secure and scalable environments for virtual care. Their potential for data management, including unstructured data, is nonetheless inspiring. With medical computer vision scans growing more precise yet bulky, cloud solutions may become the only environment able to store such massive amounts of data.