Healthcare Technology: What’s Now & What’s Next, Part 1

September 14, 2017
Cloud, Compliance, Healthcare

While politicians and pundits argue over how to pay for health care in the U.S., healthcare providers are moving ahead with efforts to improve healthcare delivery and results. Technology, particularly healthcare information technology, is playing an important role in their endeavors.

That may come as a surprise to many given that the healthcare industry isn’t known for being quick to embrace innovation — particularly the technology-based kind. After all, it’s not that uncommon to find healthcare systems still using old technologies such as pagers and fax machines. Even the government has had to step in to push providers to implement electronic health records (EHRs) and manufacturers to embrace medical device interoperability.

It’s not providers’ fault entirely. It’s hard for their IT professionals to keep pace with the demands of an industry in which there are frequent mergers and acquisitions — which often means consolidating disparate, complex IT systems. Regulatory compliance, especially as it relates to patient privacy, is always a concern. Then there are the legacy systems to contend with, systems that don’t always play well with newer technologies.

There are also challenges that IT professionals across most industries face, like constantly changing cyber threats and shrinking budgets. And, let’s not forget what may be the biggest factor: safety. When a system goes down for a manufacturer or retailer, there’s the risk of financial loss. For a healthcare system, lives are at risk. Nonetheless, healthcare providers are increasingly enlisting technology to deliver better care. The following are just a few examples of how technology is changing healthcare delivery today:

  • Robots in Healthcare. In 1985 a robot was used to place a needle for a brain biopsy using CT guidance.  Today, robotics is used for everything from inserting screws into the spine to assisting in hip replacement surgeries. They are also being deployed to assist in the day-to-day activities of frontline caregivers.  For example, nurses and nursing assistants are injured every year from moving or lifting patients in bed or after a fall. Robots are now available that can lift or set down a real human from or to a bed or wheelchair.
  • Telemedicine for Remote Care. Telemedicine is enabling healthcare systems to bring better, more timely care to patients at home and in areas where shortages of physicians and health care specialists exist. Faster Internet connections, the prevalence of smartphones and tablets, and the emergence of commercial software platforms that support real-time scheduling and billing of video-conferences between doctors and patients are helping to make it happen.
  • Wear Your Monitoring Device. Wearable monitoring devices aren’t just for tracking the number of steps taken each day. With clinical evidence of the value of continuous physiological data in managing chronic diseases and monitoring patients' post-hospitalization, more providers are outfitting patients with wearable medical devices, ranging from glucose monitors and ECG monitors to pulse oximeters and blood pressure monitors. Wearable devices are even being used to track elderly patients' movements and send health measurements to caregivers.  


Healthcare Goes to the Cloud

It’s all exciting stuff but where technology may be providing the biggest boost to healthcare delivery is in the cloud. It’s not headline-grabbing like neurally controlled prosthetic limbs or bacteria-killing lightbulbs. Nonetheless, many healthcare systems have moved — or are considering the move — to the cloud to help free up internal IT resources, boost efficiencies and convert capital expenses to operational expenses.

Just getting out of the data center business means no longer having to pay for maintaining the power, cooling, best-of-breed technologies, and other data center essentials. Instead, they can take advantage of the more sophisticated, secure, leading-edge facilities that third-party providers offer.

Plus, the cloud provides the scalability and computing power that enable healthcare systems and others to extract, integrate and store critical data courtesy of transformative healthcare advances such as wearable monitoring devices, telemedicine, mobility and big data. And, while many healthcare systems are still struggling to implement EHRs, an increasing number are seeing cloud-based EHRs as the simpler, more cost-effective way to go.

Some healthcare organizations still harbor concerns about cloud security. Data stored in the cloud typically resides in a multi-tenant environment, and shares virtualized server space with other customers. With multi-tenancy comes the risk of the isolation mechanisms that separate memory, storage and routing between tenants failing.

Fortunately, most reputable cloud services providers (CSPs) invest in topline security systems and highly trained security professionals, spreading the cost over multiple tenants.  Many also offer single-tenant private clouds, eliminating the worries associated with multi-tenancy.

The best among them that cater to the healthcare sector are cognizant of their customers’ security concerns. They are likely to have the processes and procedures in place to thwart attacks, using transparent data encryption, advanced key management, process-based access controls and other sophisticated strategies. These same CSPs typically employ vulnerability testing, going beyond security audits and conducting physical testing to ensure the integrity and security of their services.

They also understand regulatory compliance, and are likely to have ensured the infrastructure supporting their cloud services comply with HIPAA/HITECH. HIPAA itself has helped make the cloud a more secure option. Under what is known as “the final rule,” CSPs now have greater responsibility for meeting HIPAA requirements as they relate to electronic protected health information (ePHI). They are also subject to fines for data breaches, making them much more vested in employing all necessary controls to protect sensitive patient data.

Healthcare IT in the Future

The healthcare industry may not be known for quickly adopting new technologies. However, it is making advances with the technologies it is embracing. But what does the future hold, and how can healthcare systems ensure they have the right IT resources in place to support emerging technologies and trends? Read our thoughts about it in the upcoming blog, Healthcare Technology: What’s Now and What’s Next, Part 2.