PACS and VNAs are the current image storage systems that are standard in healthcare. In such systems, it's common for digital imaging from X-rays, MRIs, and so on to be archived after a certain interval has passed. Most PACS (picture archiving and communication systems) offer an archive option. VNAs (vendor-neutral archives) are used to consolidate image files from various PACS solutions into a centralized, cross-platform storage volume.
Storage hardware in the healthcare industry has been increasing in relative cost as more patient data is collected. HIPAA guidelines for retaining medical records are using up more digital memory. IT directors in medical facilities have been exploring the possibilities of transferring that data to the cloud. The market for medical imaging systems is expected to approach $50 billion by 2020.
Cloud solutions offer a more flexible on-site storage alternative. Cloud services may bring a number of benefits that lead healthcare providers to abandon their PACS and VNAs.
Medical technologies such as new ultrasound equipment have begun supporting cloud-based connectivity. Some of the images generated by healthcare providers goes straight to cloud servers. Many healthcare IT teams have also migrated to the cloud for administration workloads. Positive reactions from staff are prompting more facilities to inquire into moving radiology PACS to cloud solutions.
Major tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft offer cloud-based software systems providing efficient storage and comprehensive security features that appeal to medical provider demands for handling imaging files.
Cloud computing can provide several benefits over on-site software systems.
Cloud services allow medical images to be accessed and shared wherever there is an internet connection, at any time of day or night as needs dictate. This includes tablets and smartphones as well as provider computers. Security measures will still apply, while authorized users can access the images where and when emergencies occur.
Where storage needs are constantly increasing (there are 37 million MRIs done each year) and may even double over a short period of time, IT staff operating over the cloud can obtain more storage capacity in minutes through a cloud vendor interface. This shortens the length of time between planning and purchasing new memory space, while providing substantial cost-savings by eliminating the need to purchase and install additional local network storage.
Data is actually safer on the cloud, where it can stored on virtual private servers with all the latest firewall and intrusion detection software in place. Cloud computing also offers protection against disaster recovery. Regular data backups are made to provide redundancy in the case of system failures or file corruption. This falls to the cloud vendor, who can provide greater redundancy than local storage by storing data in volumes distributed over several data centers.
One important aspect of cloud computing is that it's generally a "pay for what you use" pricing system. This means healthcare clients pay for what they are using, not surplus gigabytes or terabytes of unused memory. This helps to keep down costs and improve budgeting, as most medical imaging files are rarely accessed once they've been reviewed and interpreted in terms of patient care.
Finding a cloud vendor
Even with these advantages, there are some critics of cloud solutions. Installing and using cloud systems does require some planning. This can only come from understanding what organizational needs are how they are met by the services of a particular cloud provider. The optimal storage, connections, data protection, and regulatory compliance for patient data must be met as closely as possible. Sharing data with networks such as health information exchanges should also be considered, as it may affect costs.
The benefits of cloud computing may be minimized by the assumption that cloud services are basically the same. There are more options in software and vendors than previously, which is why managing medical images on the cloud requires some preparation and comparison shopping.