A cloud-based health service will be key in delivering the next generation services, but it must be handled with care

The demands placed on the National Health Service (NHS) are growing ever larger and more complex. As the country’s baby boomers become pensioners, they will require more care resource in later life, putting immense strain on the country’s already struggling hospitals. At the other end of the scale, today’s millennial and younger patients are more connected than any previous generation. They expect a seamless, instantaneous digital experience and new ways to access services from the organisations they deal with.

To meet these growing demands, the NHS must transform. Not only to improve the patient experience but health outcomes as well. Emerging technologies like telemedicine and artificial intelligence offer new ways of delivering health services and help improve the quality of healthcare. However, it’s crucial these new technologies are supported by the best possible infrastructure. A cloud-based health service will be key in delivering the next generation services patients expect, improving speed and efficiency while boosting public health outcomes as a whole.

Care in the cloud

Beyond paving the way for future tech adoption, a centralised, cloud-based infrastructure holds great potential for the NHS. Data backed- up in the cloud is easily retrievable and, with the right tools, can be located rapidly. The danger of data loss, from hardware failure or database fragmentation, is also virtually eliminated. Furthermore, trusts are no longer constrained by the need for physical storage space, opening the door to more affordable archiving solutions.

A digitised NHS opens the door to greater collaboration between healthcare professionals in different hospitals and trusts. This is increasingly necessary as patients move around the country and are given greater choice on the hospitals and trusts from which they will receive treatment. When a patient moves home, he or she are usually assigned a new doctor at a new hospital. Yet this can cause delays if the patient’s medical records aren’t transferred.

In healthcare, information can be life-saving. Having access to the right data is critical, but at the right time to make a difference. When patient health is at stake, a delay in receiving a patient file or a previous diagnosis can cost lives. When supported in the cloud, however, digital patient documents can be shared quickly. The NHS never loses track of that patient’s care journey, ensuring he or  she has the treatment needed.

Perhaps most importantly, data captured in the cloud is centralised and far easier to utilise. The consequences for wider public health could be transformative. In the case of an influenza epidemic, for example, doctors and researches require masses of data to study the outbreak. This can be time-consuming and costly if all that data is spread across hundreds of different hospitals and surgeries. The cloud, by contrast, provides one easy place to access and analyse data to create models that chart the disease’s spread. In this way, sophisticated data-mining becomes part of the decision-making process, vastly improving administered care and potentially saving lives.

Coordinated care

Moving data to the cloud is a crucial first step to truly connected care, but it’s only the first step. The challenges faced as a clinician or administrator won’t all be solved by simply lifting and shifting all data to the cloud. There must be systems and processes in place for archiving and swift retrieval. In the end, data in the cloud still has to be carefully managed, classified and connected for its value to be fully realised.

The reality of cloud migration in the NHS is that it will be piecemeal, with cloud-based data existing alongside long-running data silos. Furthermore, trusts in the process of migrating have tended to prefer a hybrid multi-cloud model of cloud adoption, with certain data and workloads existing on a mix of private and public clouds. There’s good reason for this. Certain cloud platforms perform better with particular workloads – for example, a system used by thousands of patients may perform better in the public cloud, whereas a private cloud could be better suited for an information exchange service used by a handful of clinicians.

A multi-cloud approach offers greater flexibility, but, unless handled with care, it can also increase operational complexity and play havoc with data governance. Fragmenting a toolset and data across numerous clouds with disparate policies means data can become disorganised and harder to find when it’s most needed. A patient record might be on the cloud, but if doctors need to spend time to discover which cloud it is on then they are wasting precious time.

Ultimately, staff need to be given the right tools and sufficient insight in order to succeed. To overcome the potential pitfalls of the multi-cloud model, organisations should seek data management tools that service both private and public clouds while, at the same time, providing insight into the entire cloud infrastructure. Doctors and nurses should have access to tools that allow them to swiftly see what data they have and where it is, no matter what silo or cloud environment it may sit within.

A secure foundation

Yet a cloud infrastructure is only as powerful as it is protected and organised. In racing for the cloud, care providers must ensure their systems are secure and their data is easily accessible. To survive and thrive, NHS data must be decompartmentalised and raised to the cloud. Yet the safety and security of this data must not be lost in the process. In recent years, cyberattacks such as 2017’s NotPetya have thrown the power and vulnerability of healthcare data into sharp relief. As the frequency of these attacks increases, care providers must be on their guard.

It’s vital that practitioners don’t take the cloud’s inherent resilience for granted. Recent research shows that 69% of companies mistakenly believe that the final responsibility for data protection lies with their cloud service provider. The majority of cloud service contracts contain no such clause.

This is not an argument against the cloud. Cloud technology is considered among the safest in the world for data storage. Unlike on-premise solutions, the cloud has several additional layers of security and the most up-to-date security policies, with many redundancy mechanisms for data protection. Cloud servers are housed far from employees and are heavily guarded, with encrypted data that is very difficult to hack. A ransomware attack could take down your entire local network but should leave your cloud data untouched.

Yet trusts shouldn’t fall into a false sense of security. In the end, it will be up to them to ensure their data is compliant and protected. The best way to do this is to manage all data under a single set of protocols that are enforceable across the entire organisation. Centralising and automating the retention and deletion of data assets according to the latest regulations is also strongly advised.

The NHS is one the UK’s most beloved institutions. Yet it can’t afford to stand still. The power and security of the cloud is there for the taking, but it’s down to doctors and administrators to make the most of it. To keep up with patient expectations, the needs of an ageing population and future health crises, the NHS needs to move to the cloud and do it the right way. A centralised and protected cloud will keep patients safe and unlock the potential of data for the good of all.