Strategic Placement

Feb. 1, 2008

Addressing the data explosion in healthcare requires a sound strategy for turning data into information.

There is a data explosion occurring in healthcare. Frost & Sullivan’s “2004 Healthcare Storage Report” predicts that by 2010, medical centers will need to be equipped to hold almost 1 billion terabytes of data, or the equivalent of 2 trillion file cabinets worth of information.

Addressing the data explosion in healthcare requires a sound strategy for turning data into information.

There is a data explosion occurring in healthcare. Frost & Sullivan’s “2004 Healthcare Storage Report” predicts that by 2010, medical centers will need to be equipped to hold almost 1 billion terabytes of data, or the equivalent of 2 trillion file cabinets worth of information.

This growth of data is happening across the board. Take imaging as an example. It’s now possible to scan a single organ in 1 second and complete a 64-slice full-body CT scan of a patient in about 10 seconds, creating about 10 gigabytes of raw data. Compound that across hundreds of thousands of people and that alone is a tremendous amount of data. Add in areas such as pathology, proteomics and genomics, where researchers are gathering what was previously an unfathomable amount of information (one individual’s genome is approximately 2 terabytes of data), and the volume of data is astounding. Drug discovery can create terabytes worth of data over the lengthy development process. Electronic medical records, which soon will be required for every U.S. citizen, are another source of data that contributes to this explosion.

We also can’t ignore the influx of baby boomers on the healthcare system. It is estimated that individuals receive 80 percent of their healthcare in the last 20 years of their lives. As baby boomers begin to enter their prime years as healthcare consumers, the sheer volume of people will tax the healthcare system further. Lastly, consider the increased regulations and need to store data for longer periods with great security and redundancy.

This data explosion creates tremendous strain on today’s storage infrastructure. It also underscores the need to plan and invest today for the systems and resources that will be asked to store, manage, process and secure vast amounts of data generated in the future.

Smart Data Strategy

What could increased investments in IT and a smart data strategy mean? With information flowing and available at the point of care, the medical system becomes exponentially better. It enables organizations to turn data into information. That information can be used to make treatment decisions and reduce medical errors. The numbers are staggering—up to 98,000 people die each year due to preventable medical errors, while annually there are 100,000 preventable prescription errors.

While that’s the most important gain to be seen, there are also tremendous amounts of efficiency to be achieved. An estimated $300 billion is wasted annually on unneeded and redundant medical tests, with another $150 billion lost to administrative waste.

Commonly accepted standards for data storage and sharing will enable improved access to information by caregivers, resulting in better patient care and outcomes.

However, spending for the sake of spending isn’t the answer, either. Smart investments that simplify technology are critical to making meaningful strides in this area. Data storage is an area that can be extremely complex and costly, especially in healthcare, which is highly regulated and produces millions of terabytes of disparate data. It’s important to have a strategy that looks at how to keep data secure for indefinite periods while making it accessible when it’s needed. It’s also wise to take a streamlined, manageable standards-based approach, particularly as healthcare costs continue to grow.

Key Investments

One key area of investment that can make real progress in a simplified approach is virtualization of the data center. Virtualization of both servers and storage enables scalability and accessibility without crippling the bottom line. Consolidation allows organizations to restructure their IT infrastructure for the purpose of reducing costs and improving control by optimizing the resource requirements. Fewer servers and software licenses, lower power and cooling costs, smaller data center footprints and greater productivity by healthcare IT teams are some of the obvious benefits to a sound virtualization strategy. Less infrastructure maintenance means more business innovation. Unfortunately, today, most IT departments spend around 70 percent of their IT budget on ongoing operations and maintenance, which leaves only 30 percent for driving new initiatives.

An example is Sun Healthcare Group, an organization that reduced the footprint of its data center by 56 percent and expects to reduce total cost of ownership by 50 percent over the next three years. This allows Sun Healthcare to focus on bigger, strategic priorities while getting even better performance from its IT infrastructure.

It’s important to have a strategy that looks at how to keep data secure for indefinite periods while making it accessible when it’s needed.

A second key to simplifying the data explosion is the establishment of national standards for data sharing. Currently, there are thousands of systems, computers and devices in the average hospital system, many of which aren’t interoperable with other devices, preventing sharing of the data across systems. As the volume of data grows, the need for it to be shared within and across systems will become greater. Commonly accepted standards for data storage and sharing will enable improved access to information by caregivers, resulting in better patient care and outcomes. Coalitions like the Continua Health Alliance, which is focused on device and information interoperability, are severely needed to make strides in how information is used to treat patients.

Security, Recovery and Backup

A third element to data strategy is an archival system that is secure and redundant. New regulations are being proposed that are requiring pharmaceutical companies to keep clinical data for time periods exceeding 25 years and healthcare organizations to keep information indefinitely. Obviously this information can’t be stored on paper in a warehouse somewhere. Plus, when talking about individual health records, it’s critical to have reliable, easy-to-manage back-up systems.

The LSU Health Sciences Center is a great illustration of the importance of a back-up, recovery and archival system. They’ve developed a flexible, easily implemented and reliable IT infrastructure recovery plan that would allow operations to function, even if the main campus was disabled. The importance of this really hit home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Health Science Center created a virtualized environment in two sites, enabling them to easily transfer and recover data in the event of a catastrophic event.

There are various approaches to storage of healthcare data, from traditional data warehousing to federated data warehousing. In healthcare, the federated approach makes sense as a way to share information broadly. The National Digital Mammography Archive is one example of the federated approach that is a central place to store a standard mammography file, allowing access by multiple user-groups for comparisons historically and across patient categories. It allows patients to have access wherever they go for treatment.

Future Data Landscape

When data is accessible, real improvements will be seen across the healthcare industry. Take clinical trials, for instance. Currently, when a pharmaceutical company is looking for a sample set of stage IV liver cancer patients between the ages of 40 and 50 with condition “XYZ” for a clinical trial, the average medical center must look through thousands of paper records to find patients with the right profile. With a strong data management strategy and real-time access to information, that exercise is easy and efficient, making progress on drug development faster and less of a strain on the clinical community.

It’s clear that there is already a tremendous need for a smart data-storage strategy, but this is only the beginning. Mapping the human genome, gene sequencing, proteomics, advancements in imaging technology and other methods evolving from modern science all compound the need for robust computational and data storage systems. Ultimately, we’re seeing healthcare evolve to personalized medicine—drugs developed with a targeted approach based on genetic makeup, care based on real-time information and a lifetime of medical treatment at physicians’ fingertips, and prevention based on genetic proclivity to contract certain ailments. Solving this issue now will both improve the current healthcare system and prepare the industry for a future that involves tremendous volumes of data to achieve better care for patients.

This is the future of medicine, but it will only be possible with a data management strategy that is flexible, efficient and pragmatic—all of which enables data to be harnessed and turned into usable information.

James Coffin is vice president of Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences. Contact him at [email protected]

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