April 2, 2015

Cloud computing in general practice

Cloud computing can reduce practice costs and increase efficiency but, as yet, only a minority of general practices have embraced the technology. Dr Nathan Pinskier and NAB’s cloud computing expert Tim Palmer discuss the benefits, current limitations and the potential for change.

In their search for more efficient and cost-effective ways of running their business, some general practitioners (GPs) are turning to the cloud.

“Cloud computing is a way of storing and accessing data and applications over the internet instead of on your own computer infrastructure,” says Tim Palmer, Head of Managed Cloud & Data Centre Services at National Australia Bank. “You’re essentially renting a share of someone else’s major investment, so you simply pay for the service you need when you need it, like gas or electricity. The cloud may also help you reduce operating costs because system upgrades, new hardware and software – other than clinical software – are usually included in the overall service.”

Storing data

So far, in general practice, the cloud is mainly being used for data storage, websites and email servers.

“We use the cloud as part of our business continuity plan,” says Dr Nathan Pinskier, a Melbourne GP who is head clinician of a five-clinic medical practice and chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) National Standing Committee – eHealth. “We send clinical, administrative and other mission-critical information to a central, secure data warehouse. If a major disaster such as a fire or flood destroyed the practice, we could rapidly retrieve and restore that information and the practice could continue to run.”

At the moment, this transfer is an overnight process. “The current internet speed is a significant limiting factor for GPs because we aren’t just dealing with digital data,” Dr Pinskier continues. “We need to transfer images such as scanned documents from hospitals and specialist providers, and these are very big files. When the NBN gives us access to a bigger and more affordable internet pipeline and other healthcare providers start using secure messaging, practices will no longer need to scan and save paper documents.”

According to Dr Pinskier, GPs also need more cloud-based software solutions. “Compared with sectors such as finance and banking, general practice has very little software that can be migrated to a cloud environment,” he says. “The full cloud model is more common in the UK, but they have a health spine to support it. In Australia, we’re still a few years behind.”

Privacy and security

GPs have legal and professional obligations to protect their patients’ privacy which means security is a prime concern. The government fact sheet, Cloud computing and privacy provides basic information about certain legislative protections (including the Privacy Act and Australian Consumer Law) and lists the type of questions which you should ask a cloud service provider before choosing one. The RACGP has information on its website concerning general practice IT security standards, as well as a number of resources for GPs who are considering cloud computing for their practice.

“As yet, practices using cloud computing are in the minority,” Dr Pinskier continues. “However, I believe this will change over the next few years as internet speeds increase and cloud-based healthcare technology continues to mature

Questions to ask when you’re considering cloud computing

  • Where will your data be stored?
  • If it’s going offshore, does the provider comply with Australian privacy laws?
  • How easy is it to recover and restore the data once you’ve uploaded it?
  • What is the support service level agreement? Is it weekdays only or 24/7? Does the provider support practice management and clinical software?
  • Is the provider well-established, reputable and financially sound?

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