When it comes to the use of cloud solutions to solve IT problems, medical imaging has long been at the forefront of the healthcare industry. While the COVID-19 pandemic opened the floodgates for usage of cloud-based solutions, radiologists were ahead of the curve, increasingly leveraging the cloud to promote data storage and integrated diagnostics in the decade preceding.
Looking back as far as 2015, cloud storage was recognized for better connectivity, elasticity and redundancy than traditional onsite picture archiving and communication systems (PACs) or vendor neutral archives (VNAs), as well as those located outside of radiology facilities. These advantages spurred greater investment in cloud solutions. In 2022, more than $1.3 trillion in enterprise IT spending supported the shift to cloud and is expected to grow to almost $1.8 trillion in 2025.
Cloud Varieties for Medical Imaging
Given the interest in cloud storage for medical imaging, it’s important to understand that not all clouds are created equal. Radiology practices can choose from different cloud models, including:
- Hybrid: combines on-site solutions with public and private cloud services to provide a platform health systems can rely on as they gradually transition from an on-site PACS infrastructure to more sustainable cloud-based services and storage models
- Multi-cloud: combines multiple public cloud-first offerings to run various aspects of the practice, including VNA, PACS, viewers and patient portals
- Public Cloud: comprised of third-party servers and storage from companies, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, and used to deliver information via the Internet
- Private: maintained by PACS solutions partners with hardware and software, dedicated to a single practice and residing with the services provider
Regardless of the approach, moving to the cloud offers many benefits. The most obvious is that cloud solutions can be accessed from anywhere, enabling radiologists to provide quality care and collaborate no matter where they are. Moving to the cloud can also reduce overhead costs for hardware maintenance and technical support related to on-site solutions. Cloud-native solutions also improve scalability as the amount of data stored grows and reduces downtime for upgrades and maintenance, which improves security and functionality of the system. Moreover, as more health systems and practices choose cloud providers and move more infrastructure to the cloud, everyone will need to adjust to a very cloud-centric world.
Hybrid Cloud’s Flexibility Addresses Physical and Technological Challenges
Medical imaging is a key component of patient diagnosis and medical treatment, with billions of images scanned each year. Imaging data makes up about 90% of all healthcare data stored. Between X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) and other types of imaging studies, files can range from as small as 8MB for a single X-ray to 1PB for a digital pathology workflow. And radiology practices have to be mindful of regulations that require these images to be stored for several years, which can result in radiology practices having to continually invest in more storage and the space to house it, if they’re managing it internally.
Going with a hybrid cloud approach can ease these storage space and management challenges. Some IT infrastructure can remain onsite for certain applications, while back-up and data recovery are migrated to the cloud. This hybrid approach ensures that mission-critical resources are always available, enabling radiologists to do their time-sensitive work and practices to avoid investment in costly local storage.
For example, the experience of Winchester Radiologists—a dynamic practice in Northern Virginia. The company opted to move to the cloud in order to focus on its core competency: patient care. By hosting its PACS in the cloud, Winchester Radiologists can provide the highest quality patient care more quickly and efficiently because it is seamlessly backed by a team of technical experts at its cloud provider, who are standing ready 24/7/365 to assist with any PACS needs.
The move to hybrid cloud storage is a good option for medical imaging facilities that have invested heavily in onsite PACS solutions. It enables them to benefit from cloud services and storage, without compromising their investment in onsite hardware. However, when opting for hybrid cloud, it’s important to evaluate the level of complexity, need for object storage, application suitability, and overall cost to meet the practice’s needs.
Radiology practices moving to the cloud may also consider a multi-cloud model, which allows them to pick and choose from public cloud solutions to support various aspects of their organization. This approach relies on a public platform-as-a-service (PaaS) network, which gives practices access to cloud servers and the ability to change their subscription details instantly in order to maximize productivity, reduce costs and improve operational efficiency.
Even though multi-cloud has grown in popularity thanks to ease of use and adaptability, there are certain things to consider before moving in that direction, such as how to integrate data across the various clouds, manage costs, and ensure quality performance with network overlays.
To succeed in serving patients while balancing cost and complexity of the IT needed to run its business, radiology practices must look toward the clouds. Business continuity and disaster recovery are some of the initial ways in which the cloud can help minimize downtime and improve access to patient data and collaboration among medical professionals. But the benefits of the cloud can extend to a variety of applications. By evaluating the various types of cloud solutions available to address their unique business needs, radiology practices can employ the right type of cloud to improve operational efficiency, ensure availability of mission-critical data and better control costs. All of this will enable care teams to do what they do best and improve patient care.
About the Author
Morris Panner is the President of Intelerad Medical Systems. Morris served as CEO of Ambra Health from 2011 until its acquisition by Intelerad in 2021. He is an active voice in the cloud and enterprise software arena—focused on the services and healthcare verticals. Morris is a frequent contributor to business, healthcare, and technology publications. Previously, he built and sold the cloud software company, OpenAir, to NetSuite (NYSE:N).