Cloud as an Accelerant to Innovation in Healthcare

7/1/13Follow @athenahealth

At the June 19 Xconomy event XSITE, at nearby Babson College, I took part in a panel discussion focused on emerging opportunities and trends in the healthcare tech space. One topic that came up again (and again) was the role of cloud computing in healthcare and how it’s creating a more open world for data exchange. We talked about the key motivations behind its use, from the perspective of the caregiver who’s contemplating migration to the cloud, and common misconceptions about the cloud including the idea that it’s somehow less secure and makes controlling data more difficult.

I’m the chief operating officer of a cloud-based services company that was built with a focus on creating a national health information backbone that makes healthcare work as it should, and so I admit I’m biased toward the advantages of the cloud and its future in healthcare. But as a tech “geek” and “hacker for good” at heart, who entered healthcare in ‘98 and has since spent a great deal of time talking with CIOs and doctors, I am also well aware of the somewhat surprising absence of innovation inherent in the technology infrastructures found at many hospitals and medical groups today.

While there are obvious benefits to operating in the cloud—scalability, flexibility, access, services that deliver a desired result and yes, security—I’d like to expand on one less known but critical point that came up on the panel: The true power of the cloud is in its ability to act as an accelerant to innovation.

Joy’s Law states that the smartest people always work for someone else—and no company, especially those in the fast-paced technology industry, is immune to it. In order to build out agile technologies that can absorb the healthcare industry’s unrelenting change and provide the freedom and runway to innovate, we, the health IT vendor community, must be open enough to partner with the best and brightest innovators, leading to richer tools and solutions that legacy approaches can’t possibly keep up with.

What do I mean by that? Today, about half or more hospitals and health systems operate off of complex, highly customized software installations that run in rooms of servers. While this meets the immediate needs of some health systems, it is also a recipe for maintaining the status quo—the massive customizations make it nearly impossible to share innovations between systems. A problem solved once in this environment is solved just that once.

Alternatively, in multi-tenant cloud-based systems, where there is a single, unified data architecture, innovations can be easily shared. A problem solved once in the cloud is a problem solved for everyone who shares that cloud. As models of care continue to change, it is this type of truly open infrastructure that will allow health systems to better engage with each other and with patients. Think of Fitbit or the countless number of health apps that patients now use and love being seamlessly integrated into the electronic health record.

Moreover, it is only in an open, cloud environment that hospitals can learn from one another. We see this crowdsourcing type of collaboration and learning happening in countless places, like the Waze app that Google just bought for $1 billion-plus—drivers learn which direction to go based on real-time input from other drivers. The implications of this type of feedback across healthcare will be monumental.

Athenahealth is making strides to be more open. A couple years ago we realized that we can’t build out all services for our clients fast enough—or as well as others who are experts in areas we are not—and so we started a program called “More Disruption Please.” To deliver the very best services that make doctors’ lives easier, we began identifying, as well as qualifying and testing, innovations and technologies that we thought could produce tangible results, such as cash flow or time savings, in the physician workflow.

Companies like Entrada, iTriage and others are examples of innovators we’ve qualified and brought to our doctors via the cloud by enabling access to tools more easily than has been the norm in healthcare to date. Healthcare can be a very unattractive market for a young entrepreneur, dissuaded by regulatory and legal requirements, and an incredibly challenging audience (doctors) to sell to, let alone access. Our goal is to create an open environment where the best innovations climb to the top and can become widely available.

The future of healthcare can be found in a band of forward-looking companies, entrepreneurs, and innovators that are already collectively succeeding. We must work together like an army of the best health IT, growing and expanding while leveraging one another’s power, expertise, and strengths, to help realize a better healthcare experience.

Together we must decide to either be the ones to usher in a new, better model of care that differentiates with innovation, or hunker down and forfeit the chance to leverage technology to drive change.

Ed Park has served as athenahealth's Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer since July 2010. He served as Chief Technology Officer from March 2007 to July 2010 and served as Chief Software Architect from 1998 to March 2007. Mr. Park serves on the boards of Kyruus, Healthpoint Services Pvt. Ltd., and Castlight (observer). Follow @athenahealth

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