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Across the deserts of Arizona, data fields have been popping up left and right. Hard drives stacked floor to ceiling are humming away with billions of pieces of coded information on people, diseases, and insurance coverage. These buildings full of black boxes comprise what developers call the “healthcare cloud.” Once a faroff aspiration of tech-savvy medical professionals, the cloud is poised for implementation, and software companies are fighting tooth and nail to win the bids of hospitals and private practices.

The cloud operates by downloading data over a wireless connection to the hard drives in Arizona and other parts of the country. Rather than store patient files onsite at hospitals, administrators can send them to a remote information bank with the click of a button. Physicians and researchers then have access to datasets on all their patients, which could allow them to track progress, outcomes, and conduct in-depth studies. Though still a long way off in the future, a universal cloud containing patient data from across the country or even the world would have priceless value to researchers, from epidemiology to pharmacology.

Blocked by HIPPA?

But one large issue stands in the way: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Joyce Lee, MD, MPH, associate professor at the University of Michigan and a practicing endocrinologist, has looked into privacy concerns in her research on the healthcare cloud and other medical applications. “I believe that the biggest barrier to date to having a seamless cloud solution linking patients and providers is HIPAA,” she says.

Many software developers — like Amazon, Dell, and ClearData — are claiming their clouds to be HIPAA compliant, but providers and hospital administrators remain wary. Violating HIPAA is a legitimate fear. In addition to the ethical obligation to protect the privacy of one’s patients, failing to uphold the law could incur up to $1.5 million in fees in a single year. Add to that the cost of converting to a cloud-friendly form of electronic health records (EHR) and developers wind up with a hard sell.

Without a federally dictated selection of EHR programs to choose from, providers have no guarantee that the EHR they choose will stay in business, let alone be cloud-compatible in the future. Luckily, a few early-adopters have climbed on board and are paving the way for the rest of the medical world.

Kaiser Permanente has developed its own custom EHR, which allows for cloud storage across all of its hospitals. Kaiser has begun processing the metadata collected through its electronic records to test the viability for possible large-scale studies. Should it succeed, the Kaiser example may become a crucial basis for the decisions of other hospitals and medical businesses.

Affordable and Efficient

The reticence on the side of the medical community does not seem to be mirrored in the business realm. ClearData recently received $7 million in investor funds for its Phoenix-based operations. Amazon has taken the lead among major tech companies such as Microsoft and Google for healthcare cloud computing and major data studies. These tech companies are leveraging the power of their data centers and computers to attract researchers, especially big pharmaceutical companies. The strategy is paying off .

Pharmaceutical companies rent the vast computing resources of companies such as Amazon by the hour to conduct fast, cheap studies that might usually cost millions. The investment seems to be bringing savings of time and money to the world of research. In one example, as described by National Public Radio, a study required the screening of 21 million chemical compounds. The power of 50,000 computers virtually processed the study in three hours, and the cost was under $15,000 — an unheard of accomplishment a decade ago.

The affordability and efficiency of such studies has demonstrated the value of cloud computing in the present day. Other projects hint at where big data may be heading in the near future. Pathwork Diagnostics, for example, exercises its computer database of cancer tissues when a provider sends in a patient sample. In one day, doctors can have a high-probability diagnosis of the cancer a patient faces.

Easy Access

The healthcare cloud poses other benefits beyond research and diagnosis. Th e organization of files has long since been an arduous task requiring daily maintenance. By storing files on a cloud, they can be automatically sorted and searched — saving on paper and labor costs, and creating space in the office by removing the need for hefty filing cabinets.

Files on a cloud are accessible any place and any time — instantaneously. Providers can work from home or find patient information at a moment’s notice. “One of the biggest barriers that we face as medical providers is the exchange of relevant medical information with our patients between healthcare visits,” Lee claims. Th e cloud would revolutionize this process and alleviate the time wasted from digging for files. Conceivably, medical history for an incapacitated patient could be transferred from one hospital to another, which is an especially valuable tool in the emergency room. iPads and other mobile devices make such access even more efficient.

Despite concerns for patient privacy, some experts claim that the healthcare cloud actually offers more secure options for transmitting sensitive information than traditional means. Files and prescriptions sent via fax may be improperly disposed of or accidentally sent to the wrong number. Cloud access provides password protection to keep unintended eyes off of patient information.

The many benefits of the healthcare cloud seem to be overwhelming HIPAA concerns, but it may be some time before we see a universal database — if ever. For now, commercial research is showing off the powers of big data and cloud computing. And, of course, the data fields in Arizona keep on growing.

— Mapes is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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