Cloud computing is today's big buzz phrase, from personal cloud services to business infrastructure to sharing healthcare information. It can seem as far away as the clouds from your office computer, but using it is a critical part of your paperless strategy. It's also closer than you might imagine.
What is Cloud Computing?
"The Cloud" is everywhere these days, but what is it? Generally, it refers to the Internet that is accessible from any computer. Investopedia explains cloud computing as "so named because the information being accessed is found in the 'clouds,' and does not require a user to be in a specific place to gain access to it."1
Different cloud models exist, including software, operating systems, and even virtual machines. Online email e.g. Gmail is one good example of software cloud computing. For everyday consumers, the cloud means easy access to photographs, documents, and software from their laptops, desktops, tablets, or smartphones. For IT professionals, it means testing or adding capacity and features without hardware.
Cloud computing is not a new idea, first envisioned by MIT professor John McCarthy in 1961 as a public utility. He described, "Each subscriber needs to pay for only the capacity he actually uses."2 Instead of purchasing the hardware, software, and services for isolated infrastructures, businesses everywhere tap into the cloud, a system less costly, more secure, and more efficient than the former.
Imagine your hospital generating its own electricity. This would involve a large investment in plant infrastructure, machinery, engineering, fuel, space, and additional staff. Instead, your hospital purchases electricity from the public utility grid. A new access point is all that's needed for more power. That's how cloud computing is transforming information technology.
While healthcare ranks next to last in adopting cloud computing, the number of healthcare IT professionals using it is up 30% from a year ago. Another report claims it could reduce IT spending by 11 billion dollars over the next 3 years. To cut costs, many hospitals and providers are turning to the cloud.3
Your Office in the Cloud
Paper-based laboratories have been moving toward electronic storage. Most of this storage is local, however. Online policies and procedures, for example, are not in "the cloud" if stored on your hospital intranet. Putting them in the cloud adds value while removing barriers. It means accessing them from work, home, car, or anywhere on your desktop, iPad, Kindle, etc. What's more it means everyone has access to the information by all these means. And when a document is updated, it is updated everywhere at the same time.
To put it another way: local storage is limited in time and space; cloud-based data is available anywhere a user has access.
Consider disaster planning as another example of how this could transform your laboratory. During a massive transfusion blood inventory is typically managed by telephone relay. It can be a challenge to find platelets and other products, especially in rural areas. Putting inventory data in the cloud and updating it real time can save time, effort, and possibly a life.
While coordinating multiple laboratories takes commitment and resources, there's plenty you can do starting today to move into the cloud, taking advantage of ubiquitous access and freeing yourself from paper. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Sign up for cloud document management. Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live are two popular examples. Advantages include: access anywhere to many of the same features of desktop client software, software updates in the cloud (nothing to install), version control, and integration with online dictionaries and other research tools. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, and other software are duplicated in the cloud.
- Collaborate in the cloud. Once you've signed up, you'll be able to share documents and work with others. A Google Docs spreadsheet with an online input form, for example, could solve the above inventory problem.
- Sign up for cloud storage. Dropbox, Skydrive, and Box are three popular examples of online options. These services are accessed through a web browser, but they also have smartphone apps and client software to synchronize with a folder on your desktop computer.
Data that isn't proprietary or patient specific can be safely stored and shared in the cloud. For example, if you are researching a new chemistry analyzer, links, images, reviews, and literature can be stored in a cloud note-taking service such as Evernote. This data can be accessed from your office, at the bench, or in a meeting.
Giving up paper is one thing. Giving up the power of local storage and control by moving to the cloud is another. But a move to the cloud means instant access anywhere to information you need. It means less reliance on paper, certainly. In time you might even be able to ditch your office filing cabinet. Imagine that.
Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, ME.
- Investopedia. Cloud computing. www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cloud-computing.asp
- Garfinkel S. The cloud imperative. www.technologyreview.com/news/425623/the-cloud-imperative
- Narisi S. Overcoming the 4 biggest cloud computing challenges in health care. www.healthcarebusinesstech.com/cloud-computing-challenges