Sutter Health CTO: Cloud computing offers ‘huge upside’ for big data initiatives

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Healthcare executives see the flexibility of cloud computing as the backbone of data analytics.

Sutter Health, a 24-hospital system in Northern California, generates a lot of data. Like many other providers, it’s looking for ways to deploy analytics to generate actionable information for clinicians.

Those big data initiatives are virtually impossible with outdated data centers, Sutter Health Chief Technology Officer Wes Wright told CIO Insight. Cloud computing offers far more flexibility for data analytics software to take on a larger role.

“The cloud offers us a level of elasticity that we could never achieve in our own data centers, and that, in turn, gives us the freedom to do things like spin up and spin down Hadoop clusters as demand dictates,” Wright said.

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Healthcare was slow to adopt cloud computing because of privacy concerns, but Wright says it’s clear by now that “the upside is huge.” Over the next two years, he expects to leverage the cloud to push precision medicine initiatives by combining genomic data with clinical records. And as more health systems show they are having success with cloud computing, the rest of the industry will follow suit.

“It’s going to allow healthcare IT to experiment with more innovative, cutting-edge projects like big data because scale in the cloud is so elastic,” he said.

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While cloud computing offers a strong value proposition by improving access to data and reducing the costs tied to running a data center, migrating to the cloud is rife with pitfalls. Analysts and providers recommend a gradual approach that accounts for unanticipated costs and staff training and prioritizes applications that are best suited for the cloud. 

Hunterdon Healthcare System in New Jersey is in the midst of eliminating its data center in favor of the cloud, but botched the transition to a cloud-based email and calendar application, Hunterdon CIO Daniel Morreale told Computerworld. The new system confused administrative staff members and prompted a weeklong training from outside consultants.

"We did not provide our executive assistants who manage multiple calendars at the same time with the tools they'd need to be efficient," he said. "We recognized that by day two and saw that we had messed up."

After some hesitancy, healthcare is jumping headlong into cloud computing. The Department of Health and Human Services has made a strong push to put more systems on the cloud, and CIO Beth Killoran recently said the agency’s goal is to have 30% of its systems on the cloud by the end of the year, up from 18.5% in 2016.