Healthcare IT In the Cloud

keyboardThe healthcare reform bill requires medical providers to switch to electronic health records by 2015, but clinics and hospitals may find themselves overwhelmed by the cost and effort required to set up an all-electronic system. Buying software and hardware can cost a clinic tens of thousands of dollars. Along with the high cost and the challenges of setting up a local server, there are maintenance issues. How does a small practice deal with server crashes and power outages?  

Cloud computing offers an alternative to local servers. In cloud computing, software is offered on-demand over the Internet. Users can access the “Internet cloud” without having to familiarize themselves with the technology that operates it. A corollary to cloud computing is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), a type of cloud computing that is entirely web-based. Users do not need to download anything; they only require Internet access.

According to The Health Care Blog, cloud computing offers several key advantages over the typical network setup. Cloud computing can reduce the network, server and security worries that plague medical practices on a client-server system. Because they are focused solely on IT, cloud computing companies can devote more time and resources to making sure patient records are secure. Online hosting may also be better for disaster recovery. A natural disaster can destroy a local server or paper records, but files hosted online can be recovered with Internet access.

Products such as IBM’s web-based MedTrak bring cloud computing to the healthcare industry. The market for cloud computing and SaaS is expected to grow as healthcare providers seek to cut costs and improve efficiency. Some cloud computing vendors are listed below:

Unifi-Med, developed by Unifi Technologies, is a web-based system that has EMR, practice management, and patient portal capabilities. Users only need a PC and Internet access. Because a small clinic has different IT needs than a city hospital, Unifi lets users select and pay for the functions they want.

CareCloud’s platform can be accessed on a variety of operating systems, mobile devices and browsers. The system is based on a social media platform that allows doctors to invite patients and other practitioners into their network. CareCloud‘s system also offers a patient portal and electronic health records. “We’re building basically a fully integrated digital ecosystem for the healthcare community,” says Juan Molina, business development strategist at CareCloud. Molina says that the system lets doctors focus on their patients instead of worrying about their  IT infrastructure. “The older, antiquated client-server models are slowly going to fade away,” predicts Molina. “It really makes a lot of sense for healthcare providers to really go down this route.”

Concerro is a cloud computing company that provides a suite of workforce and disaster management solutions. Its products include RES-Q for staff scheduling and labor resource management; CommandAware, which helps hospitals develop an emergency response plan; and PanFluAware for tracking and responding to the H1NI “swine flu” virus. In 2009, Concerro ranked 33rd in Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Software Companies.

Practice Fusion offers a free, web-based EHR system with free tech support. Features include medical charting, appointment scheduling, billing and e-prescribing. “We’ve done the heavy lifting and the hard work,” says Ryan Howard, CEO of Practice Fusion. The system is connected to 50,000 pharmacies and a number of labs—connections that would take a do-it-yourself doctor a significant amount of time to set up. Howard believes that the future will bring more enterprise-class applications of cloud computing: administrative, billing, and other features that can run the entire business. “A trend is something that hasn’t really solidified,” Howard says of cloud computing. “It’s more than a trend.”

As with any electronic setup that handles sensitive medical data, cloud computing raises security concerns. Experts advise looking for a system that is both SAS 70 certified (a measure of data security) and compliant with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

We want to hear your feedback about cloud computing. Is it better to have an in-house tech wizard who’s closely involved with an individual practice, or does using a third-party vendor help healthcare providers stress less over IT? Does cloud computing live up to the hype?

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