What do Amazon, Netflix, Google Maps, Spotify, and PayPal have in common? They're all cloud-based services.
Often without realizing it, most consumers have grown increasingly reliant on the cloud to perform daily tasks and appreciative of how cloud technologies are enhancing experiences such as shopping, entertainment, travel, and exercising. Now the cloud is reshaping healthcare and helping providers, including ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), improve how they deliver care, engage with patients, empower staff, meet requirements, strengthen efficiencies, and reduce waste, among other benefits.
While cloud computing is not a new concept — in fact, the first reference to the term dates back to 1996 — its potential has been largely unlocked over the past decade. Cloud computing, in simple terms, is the delivery of on-demand computing services which are typically provided over the Internet. Essentially any service that does not require a person to be physically near computer hardware can be delivered via the cloud. This covers a wide range of services that ASCs are already using or may consider adding in the future, making it a great time for surgery centers to consider migrating their digital operations from on-premise to the cloud.
Here are just eight of the most significant strategic benefits of making the switch to cloud computing.
1. Strengthened collaboration. Cloud computing can substantially enhance collaboration between ASC team members as well as any external partners, such as a revenue cycle management company, managed service provider, marketing firm, and providers of information technology (IT) solutions. (e.g., electronic medical records, patient portals). With a cloud solution, anyone who needs to contribute to an individual document, such as text, spreadsheet, or presentation, can access, comment on, and revise the same version of the document. In addition, they will view these revisions and notes in real time.
Why is this so valuable? Such real-time collaboration eliminates confusion about different versions of a document, avoids the creation of multiple versions of documents that must be combined, improves ease of access to the most current version, and supports more effective sharing of large files.
If your ASC already has a commercial Microsoft Office 365 subscription, you can use one of the best cloud-based communication and collaboration platforms at no added cost: Microsoft Teams. Features of Teams include chat, video calling, online meetings, individual and shared cloud storage, and collaboration via Office apps for the Web, such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. If you're on the fence about how cloud computing can begin to benefit your ASC, playing around with Teams is a good way to get your feet wet. Here's a helpful resource to get you started.
2. Easier access to data. Since cloud-based solutions are accessible from essentially any device with Internet connectivity, team members and partners can continue to support the ASC whether they're in the facility, at home, or on the road. This functionality was particularly helpful for those ASCs that shifted staff to remote working during the early weeks of the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were in place. Some centers are continuing with reduced on-site staff, typically non-clinical, to better maintain social distancing, limit exposure, and allow for the conversion of non-clinical space into expanded waiting areas and COVID-19 screening spaces. Cloud computing is permitting remote staff to continue fulfilling job responsibilities.
3. Preparation for adoption of cloud-based ASC solutions. Over the past several years, we've witnessed some of the largest ASC technology companies roll out cloud-based management and documentation solutions. If your ASC is thinking about investing in one or more of these platforms, moving existing applications to the cloud and/or adding other cloud solutions, such as Microsoft Office 365, may prove worthwhile. This would help ensure your efforts to maximize the benefits of the cloud are not hindered by reliance on solutions that cannot be accessed from outside of your facility.
With that said, a hybrid cloud model that combines in-house and cloud-based solutions can give an ASC the best of both worlds.
4. Enhanced scalability. If your ASC has plans to grow in the future — and it's certainly looking like regulatory and market trends are going to continue pushing surgical volume toward surgery centers — cloud computing services should be particularly appealing because of their elasticity. What this means is that ASCs can adjust (i.e., contract for) the amount of cloud-based services and resources to align with what is actually required to support the center at any given point. This can be accomplished without making substantial, additional investments in software and hardware.
Cloud-based services with scalability include storage, memory, CPU cores, bandwidth, user accounts, and the power required to support applications. Scalability comes with another nice benefit: It helps the environment since you will only use the energy needed and avoid leaving significant carbon footprints.
5. Heightened security. The healthcare industry remains one of the most targeted by cybercriminals. ASCs must keep their guard up and maintain their security posture to help avoid becoming a victim of a cybercrime. Unfortunately, this can prove challenging as an effective defense requires everything from using the appropriate security technology appropriately and consistently to identifying, accessing, and patching vulnerabilities.
Cloud computer services can help strengthen your data security. Service providers typically leverage a combination of technologies, risk management, policies, ongoing monitoring, auditing, and various other processes and resources to help organizations better protect their data and applications from external and internal threats.
6. Improved disaster recovery and business continuity. Considering we're in the middle of a pandemic, we can't ignore this benefit. Cloud computing makes disaster recovery and business continuity easier, allowing ASCs to save time, avoid large upfront investments, and benefit from outside expertise. With cloud computing, you get automated data backup, so no more worrying about losing data if your ASC's on-premise hardware is damaged due to a cyberattack, disaster (natural or manmade), or staff error. If your systems are damaged, the cloud provider can restore them to the most recent backup snapshot.
If systems will be inaccessible for a period (like many ASCs experienced during this health crisis), staff can still access applications and data remotely. This helps maintain some semblance of operations as you wait out or are working to recover from the disaster.
When considering your cloud options, one important factor to take into consideration that is particularly important for business continuity is "high availability." As a NetApp blog notes, "High availability is a quality of computing infrastructure that allows it to continue functioning, even when some of its components fail. This is important for mission-critical systems that cannot tolerate interruption in service, and any downtime can cause damage or result in financial loss." While no company can ensure a 100% uptime for its cloud system, there are investments cloud service providers make to get as close to 100% as possible. If you want to be assured of a higher guaranteed percentage uptime, it will cost you more than if you chose a cloud solution with a lower guaranteed percentage.
How do you make such a decision? You must determine how much "pain" your surgery center is willing to take if system failures occur. If your EMR is down for several business days, understand how that will impact your scheduling and cash flow. There's a simple formula: the lower the risk, the higher the cost. If a system goes down and you want it to be back up and running again within a few hours, even in an off-site location, that can likely be designed for your ASC, but that cost will be higher than if you are willing to remain down for a day or two. Speak with your managed services provider to identify the design for the cloud solution that makes clinical and financial sense to your ASC.
7. On-demand storage, computing, and memory. When you "need more" — whether that's more storage, more computing power, or more memory — cloud computing can meet your demands without additional hardware purchases. As discussed, your ASC can access and will only pay for the resources it requires. Most cloud hosting providers will provide access to an online control panel where clients can view the resources they are using and easily adjust them when the need arises.
If you rely upon physical hard drives, processors, and RAM, you must continuously monitor them to ensure you do not run out of storage space, processing power, or memory required to effectively support your applications and operations. As you approach capacity, you will need to manually upgrade these technologies or invest in and set up new computers — a significant project, to say the least.
Some managed service providers will make migrating to the cloud even easier by taking care of hosting, managing, maintaining, and securing the technology housing your data. This reduces your responsibilities, expenses, and stress.
8. Potential to reduce costs. Cloud computing can be an effective way to decrease expenses, depending upon the solution your ASC selects. You can avoid the upfront cost and complexity of owning and maintaining your own IT infrastructure and instead pay for what you use, when you use it. Cost savings can add up over time when considering the investments required with upgrading outdated technology and purchasing new IT if your ASC grows its staff.
Taking the First Step Toward Cloud Computing
If you're thinking that your ASC would benefit from adding cloud computing but are worried about the process of transitioning to cloud computing, here's some good news: Migrating to the cloud can be accomplished easily, seamlessly, and safely, without any disruptions in your workflow and or risks to your patients' experience and financial performance.
What should you do next? Speak with your managed services provider to understand your ASC's options and receive recommendations. A good MSP will examine your ASC's technology usage patterns to determine what types of resources are best for your facility and outline your choices. From there, you can make a decision that will help your ASC maximize the many short- and long-term benefits of a move to the cloud.
Nelson Gomes is an information technology veteran with 30-plus years of IT experience. He is the senior vice president of business development and general manager of New Jersey for Medicus IT, an award-winning healthcare-focused managed services