The widespread adoption of health information technology by patient care organizations in the past 10 years has been transformative to the healthcare industry. In 2008, only 9 percent of hospitals in the U.S. had a basic electronic health record (EHR) systems; by 2014, that had increased eight-fold with 76 percent of hospitals using a basic EHR system and 97 percent utilizing certified EHR technology, according to figures from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and the American Hospital Association. With this surge in digitized patient data comes the challenge, for hospitals and health systems, to efficiently and cost effectively store and manage that data.
Healthcare CIOs are increasingly moving electronic patient records, including EHRs and diagnostic images, out of the internal data center and into the cloud. The global healthcare cloud computing market is forecasted to reach $9.48 billion by 2020, growing 20 percent from $3.73 billion this year, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
And, many industry experts say that the use of cloud services in healthcare is increasing steadily, despite the belief that the healthcare industry lags behind others in cloud use. In fact, results from a cloud survey by Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Analytics found that 83 percent of healthcare organizations use cloud services and only six percent of those surveyed reported having no plans to use the cloud at all.
Additionally, for the majority of respondents who organizations are using software-as-a-service (SaaS) models, the primary uses for cloud platforms are doing the following: hosting clinical applications and data, health information exchange, human resources applications and data and backup and disaster recovery. Three-quarters of respondents reported using either a private cloud or hybrid cloud services.
“Cloud, in general, is not scary anymore and most people either have their toe in the water or are fairly far into it,” Greg McGovern, associate principal at the Chicago-based consulting firm The Chartis Group, says.
“Most of the healthcare organizations that we work with, when they talk about the cloud, they are generally talking about software-as-a-service,” McGovern says. “The notion of infrastructure-as-a-service, or these true full-tilt cloud services, is not fully developed in the healthcare space,” he adds, referencing the use in some industries of infrastructure-as-a-service players such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.
A 2014 Dell Global Technology Adoption Index survey found similar cloud adoption rates with 96 percent of healthcare organization respondents using or considering using the cloud, and only 3 percent having no plans to leverage cloud solutions. The Dell survey also found that the majority of healthcare providers use private or hybrid cloud solutions as well.
Many midsize and large physician groups and independent practice associations also are moving to cloud-based EHRs from vendors such as athenahealth or Practice Fusion, due to the speed of upgrades and better data recovery while avoiding costly hardware upgrades and IT personnel costs.
As previously reported in Healthcare Informatics, when East Georgia Healthcare Center, a federally qualified health center with nine facilities and 23 physicians, began experiencing slow computing and processing speeds due to the amount of data it was managing, the practice decided to subscribe to eClinicalWorks Grid Cloud.
“It was a smart decision for us financially and with the IT staff we have,” Herb Taylor, East Georgia’s IT director, says.
Taylor reports that the cloud offers better disaster recovery protection and financial security.
“You may be able to spend that $300,000 to $400,000 to get where you need to be this year, but where are you going to be in five or six years when it is time to upgrade all that hardware again? That was the big factor for me. No matter what happens, I am paying X amount of dollars to eClinicalWorks. It was a no-brainer for us with 23 providers to pay the monthly fee,” he says.
Investing up front in IT equipment requires capital expenditures, whereas using cloud services is an operational expense and that has been a big driver for healthcare organizations to use the cloud, McGovern says.
“The ability to pay as you go and purchase capacity as you need it and carry that as an operating expense becomes very attractive,” he says.
What many healthcare leaders report about using the cloud echoes the results of the HIMSS Analytics Cloud Survey. According to the 150 healthcare IT professionals surveyed, reasons for using cloud services included lower costs than maintaining the current IT system (56 percent), faster deployment (53 percent), a lack of staff able to maintain on-premise systems (52 percent) and more robust data recovery (50 percent). Other reasons given include the need for on-demand, scalable, always on solutions (45 percent), regulatory compliance (41 percent), better information security (26 percent) and mobility of workforce (26 percent).
The need for technical resources and talent also is driving many hospitals to look at cloud applications as it can allow for better allocation of IT resources.
“If I’m a hospital deploying a Cerner solution, I might not have the technical resources that I will need to bring that up and support that environment. So it’s attractive to look at a company that already has those resources and just come online with the application,” McGovern says.