A major step towards achieving that goal could well be the adoption of cloud computing, according to Dr Christoph Thuemmler, Professor of eHealth at Edinburgh Napier University and a consultant physician at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Writing in a recent Guardian newspaper column, he says: “Government estimates show that there is a clear opportunity to save taxpayers' money by using cloud computing technology: around £4bn over the next ten years. That's a lot of hospital beds, doctors and life-transforming drugs.
“Ask any major private corporation how they manage their IT, and they are unlikely to tell you that they stick it in basements on locally run servers. They will probably use cloud computing, which means lower costs and better services for customers. The government has picked up on this trend, and serious efforts are in progress to establish a 'G Cloud' to produce efficiency savings and reduce the carbon footprint of the country's public services.”
Allaying security concerns
Across the NHS, however, the reality is often quite different. Much of the existing health service infrastructure is stuck in the 80s. A patchwork of local servers has grown over the years which, because they only use a very limited amount of their overall capacity, are expensive and contribute needlessly to an excessive carbon footprint. Nor are these servers linked securely enough to the internet, which is an absolute must when it comes to sensitive patient information. It is precisely this fear of data insecurity among many NHS IT departments that has so far hindered their adoption of cloud computing.
Indeed, a survey by the analyst Forrester has found that 50% of US and European organisations have so far avoided cloud computing due to security concerns. “Many won’t embrace the cloud until security improves significantly,” says John Gunn, general manager at digital security tools developer, Aladdin. “Their worry is that old-fashioned social engineering techniques may let hackers in and leak data.” For Gunn, the solution is simple: “Only permit data to migrate to the cloud where strong authentication is in use, and right there hackers will be kept at bay and opposition to cloud computing will instantly evaporate.”
Office 365 Product Manager Allen Filush says this certainly applies to Microsoft’s most recent cloud solution, where data is secured using controls and technologies from the software leader’s defence-in-depth strategy. “In fact, Office 365 has no fewer than nine layers of data security to maximise the privacy and integrity of your sensitive patient data,” he says. “What’s more, anti-virus and anti-spam are dealt with by our state-of-the-art data centres and updated in real time. This service is bundled in with Office 365, which means there are also savings to be had.”
Compelling reasons for cloud
Today’s spending cuts are certainly the impetus which is propelling many public sector organisations towards cloud-based services for the first time, since they are characterised by low entry costs. But as enlightened CIOs plan to use technology for competitive advantage as they emerge from recession, cloud exponents cite no fewer than five key benefits that make the technology compelling for NHS organisations:
- Economy: your cloud provider hosts services for lots of organisations; sharing complex infrastructure is cost-efficient and allows today’s financially constrained trusts to pay only for that which they actually use
- Speed of deployment: basic cloud services work out-of-the-box; even for more complex software and database solutions, there aren’t the usual delays over hardware procurement or capital expenditure
- Up-to-date: reliable cloud service providers constantly update their software offering, adding new features as they become available – it means clinicians will always have the very latest technology at their fingertips
- Scaleability: you can ‘go large’ quickly to meet patient demand because cloud systems are built to cop
- Mobility: cloud services are designed to be used from anywhere, so your mobile healthcare workers and community staff will have access to their desktop applications even when they are on the go.
Launched in June this year after extensive beta testing by many health organisations. Microsoft’s latest online service, Office 365, embodies these attributes and more, bringing secure cloud versions of our familiar programs together for the first time. “It enables doctors, clinicians and other healthcare staff to work together virtually like they would face to face in a hospital or GP practice,” says Filush. “Besides its cost-cutting and operational potential, it will ensure your staff never drop the ball by helping them to communicate effectively with one another and with patients in any situation.”
- Since the programs interoperate 100% with their on-premise equivalents, healthcare staff will enjoy the best of both: having edited a document online using Office 365 whilst visiting a patient at home, for instance, it will then open with guaranteed fidelity once they’re back at base
- Office Professional Plus will enable them to access documents, email and calendars securely, regardless of their location. It includes the new Office Web Apps, online companions to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which will let them review and edit clinical documents directly from a browser
- Being offline when out on patient visits will no longer be a barrier to productivity: with SharePoint Online, community care staff will be able to cache documents on their PCs and have offline access to them. When their machine comes back online, the latest versions will be automatically synchronised or merged. Added to which, robust document versioning means they’ll no longer need to hunt for the latest version of a document
- Exchange Online will give your community staff improved remote and mobile access to their email without sacrificing the business-class capabilities its on-premise predecessor has provided for decades
- Add Lync Online and you’ll get a cloud communications service that connects healthcare teams anytime, from anywhere. The ‘rich presence’ feature in Office will enable a clinician, for example, to see instantly if a colleague is available and then click to call, IM, email or even start a video conference with them.
A compelling proposition
“Budget savings often go against our gut instinct and polls show that people want to protect NHS budgets above all else,” says Dr Thuemmler. “But as a society, we have to reconcile that saving money can quite often mean better services if we harness new technology and be bold.”
By bringing together such a powerful set of productivity tools, there is little doubt that Office 365 offers today’s financially embattled trusts a compelling proposition in their drive towards quality, innovation, productivity and prevention.
Office 365: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/online-software.aspx
Office Professional Plus: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/office-professional-plus.aspx
Exchange Online: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/exchange-online.aspx
SharePoint Online: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/sharepoint-online.aspx
Lync Online: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/lync-online.aspx
Office Web Apps: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/web-apps.aspx