Editor’s Note: While cloud technology has been a major proponent of digital innovation for several years, the healthcare industry had been relatively slow to invest in such solutions—that is until recently. With a global demand to offer more digital solutions and services, the past year has been the push healthcare needed to adopt the cloud. From innovative telehealth solutions to accessible data management tools, cloud tech is here to stay for healthcare, and we can expect even more growth in the coming year.
As we enter 2022, the pandemic continues to exact a terrible toll in both human and economic terms. But one side effect of this crisis helped healthcare move forward dramatically: We experienced a decade’s worth of technology adaptation and adoption in the space of mere months.
Tools and technologies that had been lingering (or languishing) on the fringes of the industry moved from the periphery to the core of healthcare IT practically overnight. High-speed research and epidemiology infrastructure, remote work and telemedicine systems, models for rapid vaccine development and deployment—all suddenly became pressing public-health necessities. And all were enabled by harnessing the cloud to support integrated operations, data science and massive on-demand computational needs.
If there’s any silver lining to this historically bad event, it’s courtesy of the cloud. The past two years really opened our eyes to what is possible in healthcare when you invest in innovation and unleash it with agile technologies. I forecast more cloud-powered healthcare progress on the horizon in three key areas:
The game has changed when it comes to vaccines. Before the pandemic, mRNA vaccines had been in development for roughly three decades but were consistently stymied by hesitancy and preference for the status quo. Covid response forced that technology over the finish line, and its success is going to impact more than coronavirus propagation. It is already encouraging emboldened approaches to other huge threats to human health.
Vaccine development and deployment is going to go from a years-long activity to a months-long activity with mRNA technology. And we’re going to need new regulatory frameworks to handle that speed. In the U.S., the only reason we were able to get Covid vaccine shots in our arms so quickly was because the FDA issued emergency authorizations—both research-and-development timeframes and the standard process for clinical trials are typically much longer and more arduous. But sizable scientific groundwork had already been laid for messenger RNA technology, which supported and enabled accelerated action. More importantly, that action proved the speed and efficacy with which we can safely deploy new vaccines.
Assuming we can fashion a regulatory framework update that addresses this change in capability, I think we’re going to start to see more rapid development of vaccines against known pathogens—trials are already in the works against certain cancers, against malaria and against HIV. We will also be able to more quickly respond to future pandemics.
The current pandemic won’t be the last one. This is going to happen again, but we’re starting to grasp the power of our new tools for facing future threats. To wield them, we require a significant upgrade in the agility of our development and IT models because we are going to need the ability to manage more clinical trials much more quickly than we did in the past. The cloud is proving crucial in that process. It’s time to flex and adjust, and cloud technology can help speed both regulatory innovation and clinical trial innovation in support of this mission.
As the pandemic unfolded, telehealth usage skyrocketed, fueled by physical distancing needs and responsive regulatory/reimbursement modifications. According to McKinsey, “In April 2020, overall telehealth utilization for office visits and outpatient care was 78 times higher than in February 2020.”
Once again, existing but underutilized technology was quickly scaled with the aid of cloud power to meet unprecedented demand. Though usage stabilized by summer, telehealth claim volumes consistently maintained nearly 40-times their pre-pandemic numbers. The convenience factor has staying power. The ability to not have to go to your doctor to go to your doctor is not going to go away.
Further enhancing and extending telehealth and telemedicine applications is one of many cloud-based IT opportunities stirring the health sector to explore new directions. For example, virtual care is great because it enables timely access to health care professionals from afar, but it doesn’t let them touch you. They can’t look in your ears, swab your nose or take your blood pressure. So secondary and tertiary services will start to advance in parallel as telemedicine matures.
Home-based health monitoring devices will quickly find new and more medically integrated applications, for example. And a redefined role for tech-savvy home health workers may also emerge, with nurses and aides becoming the eyes and ears of the doctor at the other end of the telemedicine session. Picture a distributed set of health care professionals who meet patients at home while they jointly communicate with the physician back in the office, or visiting nurses utilizing a whole set of connected equipment for monitoring patients at home and feeding results back to their doctor remotely.
Such services would be convenient for everyone, but they’d really shine in populations that do not have any easy access to care. Consider the plight of rural Americans who have to drive for hours to get to their nearest medical facility. Advancing technology can help. In addition to near-limitless cloud capacity, 5G is upgrading the prime limiting factor in addressing rural populations with telehealth—bandwidth. Coupled with Starlink, Boeing and Kuiper among others racing to establish satellite broadband, ubiquitous connectivity for virtual care is imminent. This is great news for the American farmer, but also for the indigenous Brazilian facing a 14-day walk to the nearest medical facility. Truly global accessibility to virtualized healthcare with that combination of technologies is about to begin, and we’ll start to see real applications as soon as next year.
Making data make a difference
Another meaningful inroad we can expect in the coming year is the blending of historically disparate healthcare-related datasets for much more insightful decision making. The dream is precision medicine and we’re getting closer to realizing it. Typically, we have clinical data in a repository, we may have genomic data in a repository, and we might also have behavioral health data in a repository. But the ties between them all often remain elusive. Historically, those data sets are held separately. Melding them together creates a more holistic viewpoint, and cloud-based healthcare IT enables that amalgamation. Assuming good care coordination, the treatment team gets a much better ability to address all of the things that are happening with the patient instead of distinct elements.
Consider breast cancer treatment, where certain genetic sequences are starting to inform care. As the medical community explores cloud-based molecular modeling, combined with genetic insight and clinical insight into a particular patient’s condition, they can forego the sledgehammer approach and start to build a customized treatment program for a particular person based on all those combinations of factors. In the past, housing the enormous datasets required for such capabilities was very expensive. And the amount of computing power necessary to actually do that work was also very expensive.
But that’s no longer the case. Cloud power is eminently affordable, which mitigates the cost barrier and makes it all feasible. Working on unthinkably large datasets and integrating them with massive amounts of computing power, unleashing millions of trained machine-learning models to inform clinical decision making in real time that factor in all of these elements that make up a person—this will enable significantly better clinical outcomes. We’re going to be able to attack disease progression as it’s happening in an individual patient, as well as how it happens statistically across a diverse population.
Technologists in the healthcare sector tend to spend their days focusing on the “Hows” to keep the health system up and running and moving forward. As we anticipate a new year, it’s good to reflect on some of the amazing “Whats” that have already been accomplished and prepare for those coming into view. Most importantly, we should never lose sight of the “Whys” that give our work purpose. Now and into the future, amazing advancements in human health are made possible with cloud power directed by amazing information technology professionals.