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Healthcare providers are coping with the unprecedented demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with treating their usual patients. On top of that, there's the additional responsibility of assuring that a rapidly increasing volume of patient and business data is accessible and secure, as many IT staffers work from home.
What follows is a look at the healthcare data storage problems frontline medical providers are dealing with and how they're coping.
Turning to the cloud
With all these added responsibilities, "many [healthcare organizations] are beginning to find that their current data storage strategies and resources may not be sustainable," said Matthew Jackson, a managing director and healthcare IT leader at global consulting firm Protiviti. "As a result, we continue to see an increase in the appetite for, and use of, cloud storage capabilities."
The coronavirus pandemic, with its massive number of cases and extensive related research, has significantly increased the amount of data that must be securely stored. This trend is forcing many healthcare organizations to rapidly upgrade their storage capacity, primarily by adding more cloud-based capacity while shifting away from on-premises data centers, said Emad Rizk, chairman, president and CEO of Cotiviti, an analytics firm that uses clinical and financial data to generate healthcare system performance insights. "This applies not only to their external [storage] needs, but internally as well, to accommodate the storage needs of employees working remotely," Rizk said.
A hybrid healthcare data storage model
The Los Angeles Downtown Medical Center (LADMC) has added only a relatively modest 2 TB to 3 TB of storage capacity since the pandemic began. "We were prepared for storage expansion and increased demand before the pandemic forced it on us," said Dilip Niranjana Jay, LADMC's IT administration lead. "Our data is stored in a hybrid combination of on-premises storage at LADMC and our sister facilities, as well as cloud-based storage-as-a-disaster-recovery plan in a roughly 50/50 split."
Unfortunately, not all medical facilities were as well prepared as the LADMC to cope with COVID-19-imposed storage demands. Expanded use of telehealth and the shift to a sizeable remote workforce are straining existing healthcare data storage infrastructure and created many challenges. "Prior to COVID-19, the healthcare industry was already struggling with how to effectively manage and utilize the vast amount of data available, while relying on often insufficient legacy infrastructure," Jackson said. Those strains are now amplified, given the new types and volumes of data now flooding the healthcare industry.
Healthcare is a prime cyberattack target. Data protection is the Los Angeles medical center's biggest storage-related challenge, Jay said. "Any time you move data between departments, you potentially expose your data," he explained. "Especially with roughly half our data on the cloud ... we've focused on making sure this data is protected."
LADMC relies on the cloud to store and safeguard its electronic protected health information. The medical center learned the importance of redundancy when flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey shut down its cloud data center, taking essential data offline. "Since then, we've made sure we have local copies of all data stored on the cloud," Jay said.
Telehealth and data-sharing storage needs
With COVID-19's arrival, many healthcare organizations transformed virtually overnight. All staff members who weren't needed on site immediately went remote, and supporting technologies to enable remote work were quickly enhanced or deployed, Jackson said.
With the pandemic requiring both physicians and patients to stay physically distant, the use of telehealth services has skyrocketed over the past several months. Cloud-based healthcare data storage has been critical to that change, enabling doctors to remotely access patients' data, Jay said.
Matthew JacksonHealthcare IT leader, Protiviti
The pandemic has also made efficient healthcare data sharing a priority. Such data, now often incorporating vast amounts of rich media -- particularly video -- requires seamless interoperability with electronic health record (EHR) systems. "Fortunately, our Azalea Health EHR checks the boxes as both a cloud-based and interoperable EHR solution," Jay said.
Every day, at 5 p.m., LADMC sends data on its COVID-19 cases to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Its EHR system has simplified that process and reduced administrative overhead, Jay said. "The interoperability makes it easier not only to share the data, but also to receive data on patients' medical history from other providers that would be relevant to their treatment and to researchers studying COVID-19 risk factors," he said.
The rapid adoption of new healthcare data storage approaches, combined with the changing data implications created by COVID-19, means that healthcare organizations must stay vigilant and learn how to address and manage continually evolving cybersecurity threats. "Sadly, attackers are taking advantage of the situation and preying on healthcare organizations more than ever before," Jackson said.
Strong storage security is essential. Whether you're storing your healthcare organization's data in the cloud or on site, you need cybersecurity that's continually mitigating risk and patching the system, Jay noted. "In my real-world experiences," he said, "all the bad guys are waiting and ready to go through the weakest link in your network."