Why healthcare depends on mainframe computers

A look at some of the reasons that mainframe computers are relied upon for critical parts of the healthcare industry.

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One of the best parts of my job is that I get to go to a number of enterprise computing conferences every year, which means that I get to talk to a lot of people who live and breathe big iron every day. This obviously includes hardware and software engineers (my people!), but also a lot of professionals who use mainframe computers every day. And one thing that I've noticed is that the healthcare industry is well represented in the mainframe community, which got me thinking about why the medical field relies on these machines so much. Here are what I see as the top reasons why just about every major healthcare organization in the United States continues to rely on mainframes every day.


Few industries are as overwhelmed with data as healthcare. From hospitals to insurance companies to medical networks, the sheer volume of information that IT teams need to deal with is staggering. And that's just patient records and paperwork! Mix in remote monitoring devices (perhaps the original "Internet of Things" play!), online medical research, and clinical trial data, and the scope of the information management problem becomes obvious. Mainframes are really well suited to handle this amount of data.


In most industries, data breaches are costly and annoying, but in healthcare they can be devastating. Target got slammed for its massive 2013 data breach, but the company was able to recover. The medical industry is quite another matter. There is a big difference between selling can openers and bedsheets and holding the most sensitive and private information about thousands or millions of people. Healthcare companies need the most secure systems on the planet to protect sensitive medical records and other personal information. Again, mainframes lead the way when it comes to providing a safe, secure platform.


With regulations like HIPAA, data and data access not only needs to remain secure, but accountability of the data and data access must also be auditable. This is one of the reasons why I see healthcare organizations resisting the muscle memory of copying data to other systems for analytics or reporting. A balance of centralizing extremely sensitive data with decentralizing non-sensitive data is often sought.


Why do all of the largest health insurance companies, like Aetna, Cigna, United HealthCare, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, use mainframes? There are a lot of reasons, but a key one is that they can handle just about everything, from cloud-enabled data to mobile access to massive database management. A lot of people forget that mainframes are designed to support many kinds of applications, and there has never been a more adaptable platform. That's why they're still being used more than 50 years after debuting.


Let's face it: we all just want our systems to work. 99% uptime is a disaster, but with mainframes the number is just about 100%. That's critical for healthcare systems, where the right information has to be available anytime, anywhere at a moment's notice.

Ease of Integration

In addition to being reliable, they are also incredibly easy to integrate. That's important for major healthcare companies that have large IT departments where hundreds of people need to be able to collaborate seamlessly. And given the number of mergers and acquisitions in the industry, integration is absolutely essential. Mainframes are endlessly adaptable, which makes them easy to use for just about anyone…even if he or she isn't officially a "mainframer."

There is no single reason to use a mainframe…there are dozens. That's why the world's leading healthcare companies rely on big iron to provide the best possible care and maximize their efficiency.

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