Cloud Services Are Here to Stay: Don’t Be Left Behind
Working “in the cloud” may not be a panacea to solve all your organization’s problems, but the benefits outweigh the risks.
By John Halamka, M.D., president, Mayo Clinic Platform, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform
While the expression “stored in the cloud” may have once baffled clinicians and patients alike, most of us are now familiar with the term and routinely use cloud services. Despite this familiarity, there are still many health care decision makers who hesitate to take full advantage of these digital tools. Is the hesitancy justified?
Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are among the largest vendors that offer such services for a fee. They provide a simple way for individuals to safely back up small documents--this blog for example--as well as more sophisticated solutions like data analytics, remotely located apps, and much more. One definition that encompasses these added services describes a cloud as “a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet. These services are broadly divided into three categories: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).”
SaaS refers to a system in which applications reside on the cloud service company’s computers, rather than on an individual user’s computers. The apps, like those for revenue cycle management, remain on the vendor’s servers, eliminating the need for a hospital to purchase, maintain, and update the app. PaaS gives users a much larger palette to work from, including a variety of digital tools that can be used to develop and run customized apps. IaaS typically gives health care organizations an even larger collection of tools, including data processing, storage, and networking components. Because the hardware needed to use these tools resides on the Cloud vendor’s servers, the user can lower their costs.
In the last few decades, cloud services have taken hold in health care. A 2014 survey of United States health care organizations found 82.7% were using cloud services and 9.3% were planning to do so. Similarly, a 2021 global survey found 93% of health care organizations have developed a digital transformation strategy, with 78% using cloud computing in operations.
As with any technology, decision makers have to weight benefits against risks before making a commitment. One obvious benefit is the ability to access patient files from anywhere in the world. When patient records exist solely on an organization’s servers, it may still be possible to access individual files through an internet connection, but there are advantages to retrieving them from a reliable cloud vendor server. One advantage is better security, as cloud vendors have an army of cybersecurity specialists to monitor hacking threats. A medical center rarely has the resources to match that kind of protection. Mayo Clinic has entered into a multi-year partnership with Google to use cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other data science tools. This brings together Google’s security and technology knowledge with Mayo Clinic’s medical knowledge and responsibility to patient privacy.
Similarly, the data analytics provided by the best cloud vendors can give clinicians actionable insights that would likely “fall between the cracks” in a localized database or from the rudimentary analytics offered by many EHR systems. Another advantage for providers who choose a SaaS product is the ability to test and deploy new software programs without investing financially in the on-site version of the app. In situations like this, the cloud service also maintains the app and installs critically important security patches. A cloud service can likewise make it easier for clinicians to take advantage of all the Internet of Things devices now available to monitor patients’ vitals such as blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and so on.
While the right cloud vendor can reduce the threat of a cyberattack, the wrong one can open your organization up to attack. As with any major business decision, you need to perform the necessary due diligence before choosing a cloud service.
As you might expect, hackers are just as interested in the software residing on a cloud server as they are on your local network servers. Equally important to keep in mind: Using a cloud service does not eliminate a provider’s responsibility to keep data safe. If you read the cloud contracts carefully, you’d discover that cybersecurity is a shared responsibility of both parties. The other important disadvantage of putting your organization’s data in the cloud is downtime if their servers crash, or if your facility runs into a problem that knocks out your internet connection.
Cloud services won’t meet every health care organization’s needs, but most decision makers have come to the realization that using them are usually in patients’ best interest.