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The Economist on Health & the Mobile Cloud

Heads in the Cloud

Digitising America’s health records could be a huge business. Will it?

Mar 31st 2011 | NEW YORK | from the print edition

  • About time we caught up with the digital age, eh, nurse?

ALTHOUGH most rich countries, and some leapfrogging poor ones like India, are adopting electronic medical records, doctors’ surgeries in America still mostly do things the old-fashioned way. Determined to change this, the Obama administration has passed laws that will flood the health-care industry with $28 billion in subsidies over the next few years to persuade doctors and hospitals to go digital. Aneesh Chopra, the White House’s chief technology officer, says the promise of this money is already boosting investment. The big tech firms have convinced themselves that the health industry will be the next to embrace cloud computing.

In principle, it makes sense to put health records into the “cloud”; the factories for mass-producing digital services that are the IT industry’s next big thing should be ideal places to store, maintain and process patient and clinical data. Doctors’ surgeries, hospitals and patients would all be able to retrieve and manipulate the data remotely, over the internet. Bridget van Kralingen, a senior executive at IBM, sees health care providing maybe one-tenth of the $7 billion in revenues her firm sees from cloud computing by 2015.

But some scepticism is in order. A scheme to computerise the medical records of every patient in England has turned into a spectacularly expensive fiasco. Gartner, a technology consultancy, observes in a recent report that tech firms are rushing to rebrand their products with the latest “cloud” buzzword, “whether they actually are cloud offerings or not.” The danger is that America’s health services have foisted upon them whatever the industry has to sell, rather than what is needed.

Another reason not to get too excited is the reflexive conservatism and technophobia of medical folk. Jonathan Bush, the boss of athenahealth, which uses the cloud to digitise health firms’ administrative systems, calls the medical industry “anti-innovation”. He reckons the average American doctors’ surgery still handles 1,000 faxes a day.

Keeping patient records secure and private is another big concern. But PWC, a consultancy, says some firms are finding solutions to this, developing secure cloud-computing systems that can be tailored to different countries’ laws on the privacy of health data.

The best reason to set aside such doubts and hope that cloud computing will take off in health care comes from the bottom up. Richard Escue of RehabCare, a chain of rehabilitation centres, was sceptical at first, but found that the “unstoppable” popularity of iPhones and other smart mobile devices among staff—and their demands to be able to send and receive health data on them—forced his IT team to embrace a cloud-connected set of mobile devices.

Stephen Herrod of VMware, a big cloud-computing firm, says the surging popularity of smartphones, tablets and other hand-held gadgets plus the government push for digitisation add up to an unstoppable force that will help firms like his overcome all the obstacles. If so, the slow, inefficient health-care industry will enjoy faster transmission and smarter analysis of data, and better diagnoses. Doctors, nurses and, above all, patients, will benefit.


About Margaret Gold

Margaret is an innovation and business launch specialist in the mobile industry, one of the organisers of Over the Air (the annual mobile developer hack-a-thon event), and the founder of The Mobile Collective.


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