Centralizing healthcare big data in the cloud

Can the medical community make better use of big data, government regulations and the cloud to improve service and save lives? 

There is a lot of buzz going around about big data and cloud computing, but there is also a lot of confusion about how to incorporate them for an advantage. Cloud computing is all about providing services over the network, and big data is all about analyzing lots of data to gain insights and find trends. Government regulations are all about protecting the data and forcing the owners of the data to save it, just in case.

The problem is many folks are afraid of cloud-based solutions because they feel the data may not be secure, and sometimes big data may really just contain useless or redundant (what I call fat data), and regulations are just a pain to accommodate. There needs to be a better way.

In a previous blog, Reduce healthcare costs with cloud computing, I covered the notion of hospitals transforming their data centers from cost centers to profit centers by implementing cloud services for their affiliated physicians. The idea is to solve the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance issue for doctors by using hospitals’ IT departments as central locations for patient records for all affiliated physicians. (Many physicians are lost when it comes to IT, and they are struggling to figure out how to comply with HIPAA regulations related to securing patient records.)

Taking that concept a step further, there is a possibility we could improve overall healthcare in the country while reducing costs and speeding services if hospitals joined together with insurance companies to provide centralized, secure access to patient information. Now THAT would be big data. Imagine the ability to sift through clinical data from every hospital in the U.S. to look for trends in healthcare. It would be much easier to share important test results between doctors and specialists when required. Patients would benefit by having their entire medical histories readily available in an emergency. There are thousands of examples of the benefits of moving patient data to the cloud.

All it would take to enable this capability is better standardization and security. As an example, X-ray data and other clinical information are stored in multiple formats, so it's hard to share information unless everyone uses the same application. Even with standards such as Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM), many manufacturers implement technology differently, so data interchange remains difficult.


The insurance companies figured out how to handle this a long time ago, as most billing data includes sensitive patient information, but much of it is done electronically. The insurance companies rely on medical billing clearing houses to consolidate records into a standard electronic format . A similar methodology could be leveraged to start on the path to cloud-based medical information. The U.S. needs to invest in a secure electronic data interchange (EDI) standard for medical data (there are EDI solutions available for DICOM already) so hospitals and insurance companies can begin to securely connect their data centers to share information and analyze big data to spot trends and speed up diagnoses. The regulatory mandates of storing patient records for life would then actually provide a benefit, as that data could be used to gain insight into the long-term effectiveness of treatments for specific diseases and positive or negative patient outcomes.

I would love to be handed an iPad rather than a clipboard at my doctor’s office to input my family and medical history.  My information would be electronically encrypted and immediately replicated to the local hospital’s database, where it would also be available to emergency room staff (as long as I approved of this up front). If I were ever in a car accident, all my medical information (such as blood type, allergies, X-rays and family history) would be immediately available, so my treatment could be more efficient and perhaps save my life.

I know some folks will have issues with their data being in the cloud, even if it is encrypted and secure, so there should be an option to opt out. For the rest of us, though, cloud-based medicine could have a dramatic impact on improving healthcare while reducing medical costs in the U.S.  

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