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As medical images increase, cloud storage services become more viable

Don Fluckinger, News Director

A proliferation of medical images is pushing hospitals to consider cloud storage services to relieve the problem of packed data centers that can’t be kept cool.

Medical images typically represent half or more of the data that hospitals store. In upcoming years, that share is likely to increase as next-generation scanners capture more pixels, in the form of higher-resolution stills, and hospitals begin to incorporate video into their patient diagnostics that’s as fast as 60 frames per second.

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Cloud storage services in a pay-as-you-go model seemed at first like an expensive way for Rockford Health System in Illinois to deal with an overflowing data center, said Joseph Granneman, the system’s chief technology and security officer. Rockford Health, which comprises a 400-bed hospital and ancillary services, then started counting the costs of expanding its in-house data center, an expensive proposition in itself. Eventually, Rockford Health moved data backup into cloud storage services provided by Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc.

“When we first ran some ROI numbers [on cloud storage services], I thought, ‘Wow, that seems kind of expensive,’ but then we started calculating out the heating, cooling and all the other stuff we have to do,” Granneman said. “And then the [storage area network] issues -- how often do you replace your disk drives? They’re spinning 24/7 for years and years and years, and you have to account for that. By the time you do, this really does make sense.”

Moving backups and patient records off-site that are not likely to be accessed has opened up space in Rockford Health’s data center. This initiative -- as well as the facility’s other moves to upgrade air conditioning, implement storage virtualization and replace old drives and servers with smaller, faster gear -- has given the data center a 10-year projected life span, despite the proliferation of medical images and documentation, a category that’s expanding as the hospital converts old microfilm scans of paper records into digital archives.

Cloud storage services also remedy another technical issue with which Rockford Health struggles: tape degradation. The hospital retains adult patient records for six years, but regulations require that pediatric records be kept for 23 years. For decades, the hospital retained pediatric images --from the mother’s sonogram forward -- on tape, and still keeps legacy hardware on hand, such as 1980s write once, read many drives, to read the oldest of the images they’ve archived.

“Tapes just have a limited life, and we all know that,” Granneman said. “If we call back a tape 23 years from now, do we really all believe we’ll be able to read it?”

Iron Mountain sees need for HIPAA-compliant health record storage

At the HIMSS10 annual conference, Iron Mountain unveiled an update to its Digital Record Center for Medical Images. Tailored to medium-sized hospitals (those with 200 or more beds), it aims to satisfy health care CIOs’ needs for standards-mandated disaster-recovery archiving, the secure environment the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act mandates, and accessibility to records so they can be retrieved in advance of a patient’s visit. For some customers, that can mean an on-site backup complementing two separate cloud backups.

HIPAA’s rules -- and the HITECH Act’s tightening of their enforcement  -- may actually drive some hospitals into cloud storage services, said Michael Leonard, Iron Mountain senior health care product manager. Leaving the chore of encrypting backups to third parties can in some cases be simpler for a hospital trying to lock down data from many discrete systems.

“Most [of our] customers weren’t encrypting their storage on-site,” Leonard said, for a variety of reasons from logistics to cost, to general lack of awareness of the issue. “The tightening of the HIPAA regulations made more people aware that they needed to do some sort of encryption.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer.


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