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Doctor's orders: Healthcare in the cloud

As cloud computing continues to mature, there are still some questions about whether the technology is ready for highly-regulated industries, such as health care.

By , Network World
October 11, 2012 11:54 AM ET

Network World - Judy Klickstein is a cloud believer. As CIO of Cambridge Health Alliance, a midsized healthcare provider just outside of Boston, she's excited about the efficiencies cloud computing can bring to her organization.

Judy Klickstein

Outsourcing management of the hardware can free her IT staff to focus on more strategic projects instead of just "keeping the lights on," while having a common place to store information that is accessed by CHA and other healthcare organizations could make hospital operations much faster and simpler.

But as a health organization, CHA is in one of the most heavily regulated industries in America. She can't just throw all her IT resources up into the public cloud without some considerable due diligence and assurances that it will work, and be protected. So is the cloud ready for organizations like Klickstein's?

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Klickstein is certainly open to the idea of using the cloud, but so far CHA's IT investments, though working with management firm Egenera, have been around optimizing the IT infrastructure behind the company's firewall. The hospital has decreased the number of servers CHA uses through virtualization, and has automated as many processes as possible, including daily backups.

Ninety-nine percent of CHA's IT workloads are done on site, some in a private cloud, while a small amount of analytics involving non-personally identifiable information (PII) about patients is done in Amazon's cloud. She's unsure if public cloud services will ever be ready for the bulk of CHA's workloads. "We're so regulated, I have an obligation, a fiduciary responsibility really, to ensure personal health information doesn't get lost," she says, noting that a recent Boston hospital, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, faced a $1.5 million fine after a worker's laptop had been stolen.

Security isn't the only concern. She's running IT for a health organization - what if the cloud goes down? Will CHA have to stop seeing patients? What if a doctor is in the middle of a procedure?

At a panel discussion last week outside of Boson, Klickstein joined cloud vendors, users and venture capitalists to discuss the state of the cloud industry and specifically around how the cloud market can continue to mature to meet the needs of organizations like CHA.

Cloud computing vendors sense an opportunity to offer services for the healthcare space, as they position their service offerings for specific vertical industries, or so-called community clouds. Verizon's Terremark division is the latest to do this by offering a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)- compliant cloud.

Rick Ruskin, who heads up strategy for network monitoring and performance management firm eG Innovations, says one way cloud users can guarantee cloud services will be up to their required standards is through service-level agreements, which dictate the amount of uptime and performance metrics that will be delivered and penalties if they are not. But Klickstein doesn't see that as a panacea. It's one thing for there to be an SLA in place to take action after an incident, but she just needs it to work in the first place. Klickstein, more than anything, wants the service to be reliable.

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