Cloud technology (‘the cloud’) has become an integral part of how we do business, shop, conduct our banking – and yet its wide-scale use in the health sector lags behind.
Behind the scenes, the cloud is already being used to address some of the challenges facing our health systems.
It was instrumental in efforts to develop timely responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing public health authorities and experts to look at several data sets at the same time to understand the evolving epidemiology of the virus across the population.
Enabling person-centred care and targeted public health approaches
Health systems are data rich and information poor, with over 75 per cent of the data they contain being unused.
To be useful, these data need to be combined and analysed so that meaningful linkages can be established between them.
This requires a platform that can pool and store multiple data sets, with computational power and speed far exceeding what ordinary computers can achieve.
This is exactly what cloud offers, and its applications are virtually endless.
Why is this important?
Health system leaders have been advocating for person-centred care for years, yet it remains an elusive goal for many.
By combining the different sources of information on each individual – their clinical data, socioeconomic position, genetic profile, and behavioural patterns – we can develop a comprehensive assessment of their risks and health needs, enabling tailored solutions and truly person-centred care.
At a population level, combining different sources of data can help establish linkages between potential risk factors (e.g. exposure to air pollution) and different health conditions.
It can also help identify groups who may be at the highest risk for certain conditions or have poorer outcomes – allowing for development of targeted public health interventions that may redress existing health inequalities.
Driving efficiency and accelerating the pace of innovation
Our health systems are fraught with inefficiencies.
A 2017 OECD report stated that at least 10% of hospital expenditure went to correcting preventable medical mistakes or hospital-acquired infections.
Such inefficiencies can be considered low-hanging fruit in our efforts to make health systems more sustainable.
Cloud technology can play a critical role in addressing inefficiencies.
Cloud-based electronic health records enable all patient interactions with the health system to be kept in a single, secure file that is available to all healthcare providers.
This centralisation of data can be transformational in ensuring continuity of care.
Use of cloud-based technologies can also free up time for busy clinicians, allowing them to spend more time with their patients; database queries that once took a clinician 15–20 minutes can now take 15–20 seconds.
The cloud can also make research more efficient and allow for data sharing among researchers, multiplying opportunities for discovery.
This not only democratises access to research but can accelerate the pace of innovation, bringing meaningful discoveries to patients more quickly.
The importance of engaging patients
Despite this exciting potential, general understanding of the cloud among the public remains poor.
Many of its benefits remain invisible to patients and healthcare professionals, and some people may have concerns about the security of their data – concerns that are pertinent to any digital platform.
It is vital to work closely with patient organisations when developing and integrating cloud-based technologies, to build a greater understanding of the cloud and its potential applications and to develop an open, transparent dialogue about its benefits, risks and potential applications.
Such engagement also ensures that the evolving role of the cloud is always grounded in the interests of patients.
Catherine Whicher, Senior Researcher of The Health Policy Partnership, said:
“Health systems, and innovations themselves, always benefit from the input and perspectives of the patient communities they aim to serve; the adoption of cloud technology is no exception.
“Patient representatives being at the heart of decision-making around the use of cloud technology in healthcare will enable better policies and ensure that this potentially transformative technology is deployed to meet the needs and priorities of patients and the wider public.”
Fostering appropriate integration: a multi-stakeholder effort
Like any innovation, the full implementation of cloud technology will take time.
It will require a collaborative approach from all stakeholders, both to adapt health systems as needed and to ensure the highest standards of data security and governance are met.
Policymakers have a central role to play by implementing harmonised guidance and regulatory frameworks to adequately protect data governance, privacy and security, and to reflect citizens’ priorities for secure use of their health data.
Cloud service providers can embed mitigation measures into the underlying architecture of the cloud, and undergo independent audits and assessments to show that they have adopted appropriate industry standards and certifications.
They should also work closely with end users (e.g. hospitals or research institutes), supporting them to build the necessary training and system adaptations to optimise the integration of cloud into their work processes and operations.
The future is now
The cloud’s potential is so significant that understanding of what it is and how it can be used should not be confined to IT departments.
Exploring how this technology can best be used as a powerful enabler of better health and healthcare is something all of us should take interest in.
This is the future, but it is also happening now.
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