4 Steps Healthcare IT Can Take to Hybrid Cloud

To move the needle on digital transformation, healthcare IT leaders need to take deliberate steps to build reliable private and public cloud IT ecosystems.

By Brian Carlson

By Brian Carlson January 12, 2021

The goal of any hospital or healthcare provider is their patients’ health and wellbeing. When it comes to embracing new technologies, it’s not about staying on the cutting edge or decreasing cost as much as it’s about improving patient care, services and experiences that help them recover. 

“Hospitals want to be innovative,” said Cheryl Rodenfels, CTO of Americas Healthcare at Nutanix. “They want to go fast. They want to do cool things.”

But they stall when it comes to embracing new technologies, especially compared to other sectors such as the financial industry. 

“They lag behind because they don't want to go first,” she said. “Healthcare just wants to move the needle, which can hold them back from taking a leap ahead.”

Rodenfels, a former CIO and IT leader inside a variety of healthcare providers, spent the past year closely studying the steps it takes to build a reliable IT ecosystem. She said healthcare organizations integrate hundreds of applications, so IT decision makers must carefully weigh the impact of implementing new technologies. Reliability, security and scalability are essential.

“Most hospitals take a measured approach,” she said. “They start with their strategy then evaluate the risks.”

Confronted with the challenges of COVID-19, healthcare providers know their technology systems must be resilient and quickly adaptable. More than 70% of global IT leaders who responded to the 2020 Enterprise Cloud Index survey said COVID-19 has caused IT to be viewed more strategically within their organization. They say that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation that is likely to shape the future of healthcare.

“While IT leaders agree that hybrid cloud is a key enabler of this transformation, healthcare organization need to identity IT solutions to help them on the journey, ” said Rodenfels.

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She identified four areas that will help healthcare IT leaders transition to hybrid cloud: culture, security, technology and finance. 

“It’s about investing in hyperconverged infrastructure then finding ways to efficiently bridge their private and public cloud environments while keeping security and cost top of mind.”

Culture and Security

Nothing gets done inside large organizations without buy-in from the top. For many, this also means getting buy-in across certain lines of business. Breaking cultural barriers is often necessary to create an IT services organization that is adaptable and proactive. Regardless of culture, Rodenfels said it’s a matter of understanding risk tolerance.

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“What is your culture and how much risk are you willing to mitigate and put forward?” asked Rodenfels. “Knowing that will reveal what drives the overall culture and cloud strategy.”

In assessing risk tolerance, she said IT teams need to have a clear approach to data security and a plan for mitigating cyberattacks, but they must provide reliable access to the right people and critical services.  

“Every system lets people in from outside,” she said. “You may have a tumor registry that is provided by an external provider and is a hosted cloud portal service. You've got to let your organization have access to that.”

Add to that the fact that providing secure access is getting more complex with the emergence of more connected IoT and mobile devices in hospitals. 

“Health systems can no longer rely on traditional security approaches when it comes to protecting highly sensitive patient data,” Rodenfels said. “With the stress of COVID-19 further disrupting healthcare IT operations, networks must be prepared for evolving outside threats that look to take advantage of vulnerable systems.”

She said electronic healthcare records (EHR) are worth big money on the black market, so IT managers must protect patient data and be prepared to move data to safe places, like off of a public cloud to an on-premises data center.

IT Modernization Challenges

Aside from the cyber security and data security concerns, modernizing legacy applications and systems can pose enormous challenges.  

“A lot of healthcare applications are not designed for the cloud,” she said.

To make old apps work on a private or public cloud takes time and money, but investing in DevOps can lead the way to building and running an efficient hybrid cloud system. 

“While there are healthcare organizations that have dev shops, most healthcare organizations are integrators,” she said. “DevOps shops have the opportunity to actually develop their apps in the cloud or re-platform them pretty easily.”

A strong DevOps approach can help optimize apps to run in private or public clouds. As developers need computing resources, the IT operations team can scale out the data center or cloud services, essentially getting both teams on the same page. Rodenfels said this can lead to faster, more efficient deployments of new applications and future cost management.

Eye on Cost

The final consideration on the path to the cloud for healthcare organizations and hospitals is cost and financial concerns, said Rodenfels. With the pandemic driving accelerated digital transformations and challenging traditional business models, operating in the cloud is an attractive option, but HIT leaders need to keep an eye on their operating costs, as unmanaged or poorly managed cloud can creep in.

“Everybody's driving down their operating costs,” she said. “No one wants to drive them up, which is what has happened with a lot of the cloud technology. That’s why a hybrid cloud system’s ability to manage costs across private and public clouds is so appealing.”

Healthcare companies and hospitals that are hiring and fostering new hybrid IT skill sets face new financial challenges, according to Rodenfels.

“Hospitals have brought in a lot of folks from other industries, because they want that innovation,” she said. “They get some really good fast starts because they can quickly shift some operations to cloud or as-a-service, but then the bills start coming in. All the progress made can get pulled back costs are skyrocketing to a point where it’s not affordable.”

As the pandemic has upended regular treatments and surgeries at hospitals it has impacted revenues, which begs an even tighter look at cloud, Rodenfeld said.

“Every single hospital is watching revenue right now, especially through the pandemic and delayed payments,” she said. 

“And you know, organizations got behind when they put elective surgeries on hold. Now they're starting to be reimbursed properly and many are getting back on track, but they're still seeing lower revenues overall. Keeping an eye on finances is a big concern for everyone in healthcare.”

Brian Carlson is a contributing writer. He is Founder of RoC Consulting and was Editor-in-Chief of CIO.com and EE Times. Follow him on Twitter @bcarlsonDM

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