Never has managing medical data been as demanding as it is today. Or as critical.
Healthcare generates about 30% of the world’s data volume, according to RBC Capital Markets, and it’s growing at about a 36% annual clip — faster than manufacturing, financial services and media/entertainment.
Personal health apps and devices are fueling much of the growth: Statista estimates that wearable monitors alone generated 335 petabytes of medical data every month last year.
If harnessed properly, all this medical data could facilitate R&D breakthroughs, advance preventative medicine, and slash the exorbitant cost of healthcare delivery, said Geoffrey Bakeman, vice president of Healthcare Solutions at Comport Consulting Corp. His firm works with providers to move the patient care needle forward through modern uses of healthcare IT solutions such as cloud and as-a-service technologies.
But managing the data deluge amid a lingering COVID-19, mergers and acquisitions, new compliance rules, and a ransomware epidemic is a struggle, Bakeman said.
“CIO’s want to work on proactive initiatives and better patient outcomes,” he said. “But a lot of time is taken up with fire-fighting. Ransomware, pandemic, long delays due to supply chain, remote workforce, staffing issues. Gaining efficiencies is where we can really be of service.”
Though the U.S. spends roughly twice as much on healthcare delivery as other countries with similar political, economic, and social makeups, “money is limited,” Bakeman said. U.S. national healthcare expenditures are expected to reach $6.2 trillion by 2028, and healthcare currently accounts for about 17% of the U.S. GDP.
The data, analytics and network technology exist to power medical transformation, yet providers battle everyday operations distractions. Bakeman said a beacon of hope lies in virtualized infrastructure and data management tools that enable interoperability among disparate systems and automate much of IT operations.
Health Equity Considerations
In 2019 Comport and Nutanix teamed up on a mission-critical project to modernize IT for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in underserved markets. Bakeman explained that this streamlined and enhanced the IT engine and network at Delaware Valley Community Health in Philadelphia.
The faster patients can check in and providers can access the information they need, the more people that can be treated and the greater the revenue and medical reimbursement. It was taking two to three minutes for a patient to register, according to Isaiah Nathaniel, now vice president and chief information officer at Delaware Valley Community Health, Inc. By implementing Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) software to manage IT systems, it allowed DVCH to reduce that time to 11 seconds.
By having HCI in place by the time COVID-19 struck, Nathaniel was able to launch telehealth and telework systems to help handle the surge brought on by the pandemic. He reported having conducted 45,000 telehealth visits and supporting 75% of his 322-person workforce remotely between March and December 2020, during which active patient portals jumped from 500 to more than 9,000, he said.
“If we had not had Nutanix in place, there wouldn’t have been anything we could have done,” said Nathaniel. “We would have needed to close our doors on 50,000 patients.”
Nathaniel reported saving $70,000 to $80,000 in licensing fees from a previous system that “wasn’t giving me the efficiency I needed” on day one and $180,000 in consulting costs over 18 months, which allowed him to add two people to his lean nine-person IT staff.
Bakeman said that since the DVCH success, he’s attempting to help other FQHCs make similar moves and “put more money in the coffers for nurses, doctors, clinicians, and a better patient experience” to help enable health equity throughout the U.S.
Security and Compliance Challenges
Security — specifically, ransomware — is one of the biggest threats to the healthcare system, and Bakeman says it’s top of mind in the C-suite, which bears ultimate responsibility for patient health information. “If...that data gets hacked, they could go to prison,” he said.
A 2021 Sophos survey revealed that 34% of healthcare providers had been hit with a ransomware attack within the past year, which can cost a provider in the neighborhood of $2 million a pop, said Bakeman. “If you haven’t budgeted for that, you’re in trouble.”
Healthcare organizations aren’t in a position to simply refuse payment for ransomed data — which has been encrypted and isn’t accessible without a decryption key provided by the hacker — because not paying puts lives depending on the data at risk.
Warding off the attacks requires “a cyber environment that locks down every single access point — IoT devices like infusion pumps, radiology machines, every PC, firewall, and Internet access device,” said Bakeman.
“For an IT team, this means thousands of PCs, laptops, and devices to constantly monitor, update, and back up,” Bakeman said.
He applauded virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) for getting “much better control over sensitive information.” With VDI, a PC is only used to access and display the desktop environment. “Since no data is stored on it, it’s more secure.”
Nutanix software also helps providers like DVCH combat attacks with built-in secure configurations and audits that automate security best practices, segment networks and applications to contain infections, and create immutable write-once, read-only (WORM) storage backups that can’t be altered for a specified period of time by anyone.
Part of the security and compliance challenge is that the healthcare industry is heavily regulated. HIPAA patient confidentiality rules mean “most healthcare data is currently in a hybrid cloud, with the patient data on-premises,” said Bakeman.
For FQHCs, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began enforcing new interoperability rules this year.
“Patients can walk in with a cell phone and request access to their records, and you have to give it to them,” said DVCH’s Nathaniel. “If your systems aren’t ready to share information across multiple software platforms securely, you’re up against [compliance] fines” that could run from $500,000 to $2 million, he said.
Similarly, mergers and acquisitions are expected to consolidate the number of U.S. hospitals in the coming years from 6,000 to about 2,500 by 2025, said Bakeman.
“The portability of electronic patient health records, or EHRs, is going to be an issue as systems merge because many EHRs are proprietary,” he said.
Modernization a Must
Modernizing to simplify and automate IT is critical to managing, securing, and making the most of medical data to improve care, particularly in FQHCs that are attempting to achieve health equity throughout the nation.
“The legacy systems in place [make it hard] to just turn on a dime and disrupt them,” said Bakeman.
But some organizations have to bite the bullet. “Simplicity of infrastructure is paramount,” said Nathaniel.
‘In an FQHC the staff is so lean and must do everything. So they require a system that almost runs itself, with some managed services customized to offload specific tasks.”
Editor’s note: Learn more about Comport’s healthcare IT services and technologies. Find details about Nutanix hybrid multicloud technologies for managing healthcare IT.
Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 25 years of experience covering the business implications of IT and computer networking technologies.
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