Everybody is talking about cloud technology. You’ve heard of ‘storing data on the cloud’ from smartphone makers (Apple’s iCloud being the prime example) to companies like Dropbox and Evernote that base their entire businesses on the cloud.
Cloud storage is not just an emerging technology trend in the tech industry, it is also becoming popular in the healthcare world. Here is a brief overview of what cloud storage is, and how it can impact medical practice here in India.
What is Cloud Storage?
Here is a simple definition – Cloud storage is the method in which data is maintained, managed and backed up remotely and made available to users over the internet.
In this process, data is typically split into various parts and stored in multiple servers spread across various locations. The logic behind the split and distribution (i.e. what parts of data are stored where) is stored in online ‘pools’, which are encrypted and stored behind a password-protected area. Each pool is linked to data parts stored in servers across locations and these servers together make up a ‘cloud’.
Here is an example to help make you understand better. Imagine you want to store a 50 MB video on the cloud. Once you upload this file to a cloud storage service, the file is analyzed and split into say 10 parts of 5 MB each. Each of these parts is stored in not just 10, but 30 servers located in various cities across the world. Some servers might get parts 1, 3 & 7, some might get 1, 3, 5 & 8. The logic behind this split & distribution is stored in the encrypted online pool that only you have access to, and hence only you can download this 50 MB video in one piece again.
Files stored are backed up from time to time to avoid loss of data, and thus the information stored is highly durable through the creation of multiple ‘versioned’ copies. With cloud storage, there is no need to carry around a physical storage device, nor there the compulsion to use the same computer to save and retrieve information.
Despite the strangeness of the term, many people who access the internet regularly are actively using cloud storage systems without their knowledge. Most of the major email providers such as Gmail and Yahoo, many online banking & shopping sites and even social networking sites including Facebook employ cloud storage technology to store information.
How can Cloud Storage impact medical practice?
The importance of maintaining electronic health records (EHR) and patient information has been a major challenge over the past years. Since this data can be overwhelmingly vast (imagine decades of reports, clinical notes, prescriptions, x-rays & images per patient) the immediate concern that accompanies EHR data generation is the issue of storage. Do to this reason, before the advent and popularity of cloud storage, the concept of EHR was associated with high costs that needed dedicated devices for storing information.
With the arrival of cloud storage, the EHR system underwent a drastic change. EHR systems are broadly classified into two basic categories: the older client-server system, and the newer cloud-based system. The client-server is your typical in-house server system – data is stored locally on servers, with specific hardware & software needs and requiring regular data backups. For obvious reasons, this type of a system is associated with high installation and operational costs. On the other hand, a cloud-based system stores EHR data on multiple, distributed servers, and which can be easily accessed through the internet. Thus, the only requirement is a device (computer, tablet or smartphone) with an internet connection.
Here the are some advantages of cloud-based EHR systems over the traditional client-server system:
- Easier & faster installation, operation and maintenance
- No need for dedicated software, hardware and servers
- Saves a lot of costs associated with data storage
- No need for regular backups
- Data can be securely accessed at anytime, anywhere, using any device
- Data can be easily shared with other medical practices & even patients
- Adding & retrieving data is significantly faster
Is Cloud-Stored Patient Data Safe?
Though a web-based cloud storage of patient data is easily retrievable, skeptics fear about the safety and security of data. The chief concern is that an in-house computer server storing data is more secure than internet-based storage. In developed countries, such concerns were adequately addressed by regulatory authorities. As an outcome of these strict regulations, web-based EHR systems can actually deliver greater security than both client-server systems and paper records!
The United States of America mandates that cloud-based EHR systems achieve the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Since all the major cloud storage companies are either located in the US or serve American customers, they must comply with this regulation. In addition, these systems employ a high-level 128-bit encryption system. This means that even if there is a security lapse or ‘hack’, the data that can be accessed is simply unreadable – just a bunch of gibberish characters. This advantage is rarely, if at all, found in client-server based systems.
When compared to the traditional paper-based data and to the client-server based systems, cloud-based systems have the advantage of being free from data loss during natural disasters or fire accidents. Even in case of software malfunction or virus attacks, cloud-based data will remain safe and accessible since it is located off-site.