The Cloud and Imaging in Healthcare: The 2024 Outlook

The Cloud Explained

Cloud computing, or “the cloud,” as it’s often referred to, offers on-demand solutions using the latest technology to deploy, access, and use networked information, applications, and resources. The cloud provides services over the Internet rather than via on-premises computer server networks. For many years, confusion has arisen, including misconceptions about its security, reliability, and scalability. However, advancements have clarified these issues, making cloud solutions a trusted and essential component of modern IT infrastructure.

Essential services delivered by the Cloud are:

  • Servers
  • Storage
  • Databases
  • Networking
  • Software
  • Analytics
  • Intelligence

It is important to note that not all cloud offerings are the same, and a one-size-fits-all option does not exist. For example, acceptable cloud protocols for the financial industry may not be helpful to the healthcare profession.

Types of cloud computing options include:

  • Public cloud enables the use of resources such as storage, applications, and virtual machines to a variety of enterprises. The cost for public cloud services may be through a subscription for the services, an on-demand arrangement, or other accommodation.
  • Private cloud is used by one entity and the services and infrastructure are maintained on a private network or system. The private cloud option could be located on-prem at a datacenter or hosted by an outside vendor.
  • Hybrid clouds combine assets of the private and public option to allow sharing of information and applications.

Cloud Adoption In Healthcare and Medical Imaging

According to the Imaging in the Cloud 2024 Report by KLAS, nearly two-thirds of the surveyed organizations already use the cloud for image viewing and storage or plan to do so within the next three years. Moreover, 63% of organizations that use cloud software intend to increase its usage in the coming years. This trend is common among larger organizations, with 75% planning to expand their cloud usage for diagnostic viewing.

Despite the apparent trend toward increased utilization of cloud solutions, significant concerns remain driven by the potential for enhanced image viewing and storage capabilities. Key issues include costs, privacy, cybersecurity, and bandwidth requirements. Many healthcare organizations find the cloud to be as expensive as on-premises alternatives. High costs, privacy risks, and cybersecurity are top concerns for approximately 39% of surveyed organizations, while 32% are worried about the sufficiency of their bandwidth.

Benefits of the Cloud in Healthcare

Cloud data storage options have become more widely adopted in healthcare over the past several years, as potential concerns about storing data “off-premise” have been addressed. As organizations adopt mobile applications, storing clinical data in the cloud provides users more complete access.

Key Benefits

  1. Enhanced security: Cloud-based patient data storage will undergo continuous improvements with little or no disruption to information access as new levels of security de
  2. Scalability: Cloud storage can quickly adapt to changing needs, adjusting capacity as patient data increases or decreases. This flexibility can result in significant cost savings, especially with pay-as-you-go arrangements.
  3. Reduced IT costs: Storing patient data in the cloud can reduce the size of the on-site IT staff needed for upgrades and maintenance.
  4. Availability and Reliability:Cloud storage is protected against power outages, ensuring continuous operation and data safety.
  5. Access:Patient data stored on a cloud platform is readily available 24/7, anywhere, with internet access, enabling remote work for healthcare professionals and telehealth options for patients.
  6. Flexibility: The cloud eliminates the need for adjustments required through traditional patient data storage changes by seamlessly integrating them into the current cloud operating system.

Securing Patient Data in the Cloud

Cloud storage offers significant advantages for HIPAA-compliant de-identification of Protected Health Information (PHI). This process requires the masking or removal of 18 PHI identifiers, making data preparation complex. Unlike server-based systems, cloud storage reduces exposure to human error and software glitches. Encrypted EHR/EMRs and DICOM data protect sensitive information from unauthorized access, cyber-attacks, and breaches. Third-party cloud providers enhance security with updated firewalls and protection measures, ensuring only authorized personnel access the data.

Patient data stored in the cloud includes:

  • Clinical:Health records, physician notes, orders, pharmaceutical information, and test results.
  • Revenue cycle management:Tracking patient care episodes from registration to final payment.
  • Imaging:X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.

Cloud PACS, the Newest Player in the Cloud Realm

Picture Archiving and Communication System (PACS) is a medical imaging technology used primarily in healthcare organizations to securely store and digitally transmit electronic images and clinically relevant reports. Traditionally, PACS are on-premises, requiring significant infrastructure and maintenance. However, with the advent of cloud computing, Cloud PACS has emerged as a transformative solution, leveraging cloud technology to enhance medical image storage, retrieval, and management.

What is Cloud PACS?
Cloud PACS is a system where medical imaging data is stored in the cloud instead of on local servers. This setup allows healthcare providers to access, share, and analyze medical images anytime and anywhere with an internet connection. Cloud PACS integrates with other cloud-based healthcare solutions, offering a seamless and scalable platform for managing medical imaging data.

Benefits of Cloud PACS

  • Scalability: Cloud PACS can scale to accommodate the growing volume of imaging data without additional physical storage, benefiting large healthcare organizations that handle extensive imaging needs.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: By utilizing cloud storage, organizations can reduce the upfront and maintenance costs associated with on-premises PACS. Cloud PACS often operates on a pay-as-you-go model, making it more affordable for smaller healthcare providers.
  • Accessibility: Medical professionals can access imaging data from any location, facilitating remote diagnostics and consultations crucial for teleradiology and other telehealth services, especially in underserved or rural areas.
  • Disaster Recovery: Cloud PACS offers robust disaster recovery capabilities. Data stored in the cloud is protected against local hardware failures, natural disasters, and other disruptions, ensuring continuity of care and safeguarding patient information.
    Integration and Interoperability: Cloud PACS systems can integrate with other cloud-based healthcare applications, such as electronic health records (EHRs) and radiology information systems (RIS). This integration promotes interoperability, enhancing the overall efficiency of healthcare delivery.
  • Enhanced Security: Leading cloud providers implement advanced security measures, including encryption, access controls, and regular security audits, to protect sensitive medical data from cyber threats.

The Role of Cloud PACS in 2024

As of 2024, the adoption of Cloud PACS is rapidly increasing. According to the Imaging in the Cloud 2024 Report by KLAS, nearly two-thirds of healthcare organizations are already using or planning to use the cloud for image viewing and storage within the next three years. This trend highlights the growing recognition of the benefits offered by cloud-based solutions in the medical imaging field.

Despite its advantages, the transition to Cloud PACS is challenging. Key concerns include:

  • Costs: Some healthcare organizations find cloud solutions as expensive as on-premises, particularly when considering long-term usage and data transfer costs.
  • Privacy and Cybersecurity: Ensuring the privacy and security of sensitive medical data is paramount. Healthcare organizations must work with reputable cloud providers to mitigate data breaches and unauthorized access risks.
  • Bandwidth Requirements: Ensuring sufficient bandwidth is crucial to maintaining performance and accessibility, as High-resolution medical images require substantial bandwidth for efficient upload and download.

Teleradiology in the Cloud

Teleradiology involves transmitting radiological images from one location to another for analysis and interpretation by off-site radiologists. This flexibility is crucial for accessing sub-specialists like MRI radiologists, neuroradiologists, pediatric radiologists, or musculoskeletal radiologists, who are typically available only in large metropolitan areas during daytime hours. Teleradiology ensures 24/7 access to trained specialists and is a market projected to reach $11.5 billion by 2026, offering significant opportunities for healthcare organizations and imaging service providers.

Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is a standard for data formats, elements (“resources”), and APIs for exchanging electronic health/medical records (EHR/EMR). FHIR builds on HL7’s previous data standards and is easier to implement with modern, web-based API technology, including an HTTP-based RESTful protocol. A scalable de-identification toolset is essential to comply with the Safe Harbor methodology, which requires masking or removing 18 PHI identifiers to enable de-identified data for research or training of AI algorithms without compromising patient privacy. The solution is a proven and scalable de-identification toolset—an on-ramp to artificial intelligence (AI)—that unlocks imaging studies for research, policy assessment, and comparative effectiveness studies without compromising patient privacy.

Cloud’s Role in Teleradiology

The cloud is integral to the advancement of teleradiology. It provides the necessary infrastructure to store vast amounts of data, including images. The cloud enables seamless access to subspecialists and ensures that telehealth services can be scaled globally, accommodating higher patient loads and extending clinicians’ reach via the Internet or cell signals. Additional benefits of cloud-based solutions include speed to deployment, global availability, and the capacity to handle large volumes of patient data efficiently.

The Cloud offers a fast path to get teleradiology systems up and running during a catastrophic event or simply provided as a choice due to patient preference. The cloud allows for the petabytes of storage required for images while providing the ability to build and deploy systems that will extend a clinician’s reach with a primary internet connection or a cell signal.

Improving Disaster Recovery with the Cloud

Disaster recovery (DR) is how organizations regain access and functionality to their IT infrastructure following a natural or human-induced disaster. These disasters can take many forms but invariably result in disrupted systems and halted business operations. An effective DR plan is crucial for health IT teams to restore medical data and resume normal processes swiftly, minimizing downtime and data loss.

When access to on-prem systems is limited, a cloud-based health IT platform has a significant advantage as part of a disaster recovery response plan. A healthcare organization must have a comprehensive backup plan to address various disasters. Delays of even a few days in resuming normal hospital operations can jeopardize patient safety, particularly if medical devices or medications are affected. Healthcare organizations can avoid significant capital investments in infrastructure and the ongoing costs of managing it by selecting a cloud-based backup or disaster recovery solution. Additionally, they benefit from rapid scalability and the geographic separation necessary to safeguard data in a regional disaster.

Advantages of Cloud-Based Disaster Recovery
When access to on-premises systems is restricted, a cloud-based health IT platform offers significant advantages for disaster recovery:

  • Comprehensive Backup Plans: A cloud-based DR solution enables healthcare organizations to have a comprehensive backup plan capable of addressing a range of disasters. Rapid restoration of normal hospital operations is critical to patient safety, especially when medical devices or medications are involved.
    Cost Efficiency: Healthcare organizations can avoid the substantial capital investments required for infrastructure and the ongoing costs associated with managing it by opting for cloud-based backup or DR solutions.
    Rapid Scalability: Cloud solutions can scale quickly, accommodating sudden data storage needs or processing power increases during a disaster.
    Geographic Separation: Storing data in geographically dispersed cloud locations ensures data safety in regional disasters. This geographic separation protects data against localized events that could compromise on-premises systems.

Dicom Systems and the Cloud

When a healthcare system’s PACS goes down, the need for disaster recovery and business continuity must go hand in hand so that mission-critical clinical workflows can continue. Dicom Systems Unifier platform ensures uninterrupted patient imaging operations, whether PACS downtime was planned or unplanned. Our solution lets our customers store the data in any chosen cloud in natively DICOM format. DICOM objects are queried, retrieved, and viewed in a zero-footprint viewer, making Unifer a real-time source for relevant prior images. When it launched in 2019, Dicom Systems’ Unifier Cloud Archive was the first turnkey solution for backing up HIPAA-compliant medical imaging to the cloud.

Our solutions are also available on significant cloud marketplaces, making deployment and management straightforward:

Discover how the Dicom Systems Unifier platform cloud-based solutions can provide uninterrupted imaging operations and disaster recovery. Schedule a meeting with our experts today to learn more about our offerings and how they can benefit your organization.