The IT challenges of healthcare are well known. It’s a sector that relies heavily upon legacy systems because – understandably – it prefers to make investments that benefit patients. It also holds a great deal of very sensitive information, making it a prime target for cybercriminals. At the same time, healthcare needs to operate in real time and make data readily available across multiple locations.
It’s important not to ignore the wider issues of health provision. The population is getting older and there are continuing innovations and new treatments. There are also pressures as a result of moves to better integrate health and social care services which will place extra demands on the availability and sharing of patient information.
All of this adds up to pressure to deliver an IT service for healthcare that is at the same time secure, reliable and cost-effective. So how can the cloud help to meet these demands?
A recent Gartner report  shows that the health sector is becoming more at home with the use of public cloud services. This is particularly true where the benefits can be shown to be promoting a better service and the risks are low.
Gartner identifies roles for both large and small cloud providers, in addition to generalists and specialists within the sector. These include the major cloud service providers such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, together with smaller companies offering more specialist services targeted at healthcare. The later includes expert Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) operators with systems designed from the outset for use in hospitals.
The cloud is often seen as a good way of testing new solutions, even if the developed system ultimately ends up being run elsewhere. There has, up until now, been some reluctance to move critical systems to the cloud and in order to overcome this, providers will need to show that they are compliant with data protection legislation such as GDPR and the North American HIPAA regulations which are increasingly seen as a standard for healthcare systems elsewhere.
Increasingly, the cloud is being seen as a route to improving the way in which doctors, nurses and hospitals operate. Historically systems have been centralised and maintained in-house, leading to a reliance on systems that may have been outdated and insecure. The effects of the WannaCry attack  on the NHS were exacerbated by the continued use of Windows XP, for example.
Using the cloud can deliver systems that are not only more up to date, but also more cost-effective as it’s only necessary to pay for the resources used. This enhances flexibility as systems can easily be scaled up or down to meet variations in demand.
For these benefits to be realised, however, the network infrastructure needs to be in place to support them. This requires an integrated approach covering communications, connectivity and cloud use. In moving away from legacy systems, organisations will only be as good as their infrastructure allows.
In the longer-term, integration will prove key. Allowing healthcare organisations not just within particular trusts or regions to share data quickly and securely will enable the provision of better patient services whilst serving to reduce costs.
What is crucial is that any shift to the cloud should genuinely benefit the organisation. This can’t be done in isolation and may involve outsourcing at least some of the task to specialist providers. If managed correctly, this should add up to a service that is more efficient, secure and cost-effective than using on-premises systems or localised data centres.