Cache me if you can

As healthcare finally begins to go digital, many systems are struggling under the sheer weight of patient data.

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By  Vernon Baxter Published  July 24, 2008

As healthcare finally begins to go digital, many systems are struggling under the sheer weight of patient data. MT learns how to keep your hard drive healthy and to plan for tomorrow's data; not just today's.

When it comes to IT, the most common mistake is complacency. While hardly unique in this aspect, healthcare professionals are guilty of forgetting their next big technology disaster is always just a reboot away.

"IT is one of those things where when it is working it's great, but the moment it stops working everyone starts running around like headless chickens," explains Bruce Richards, director of Hicom Technology.

What physicians need to remember, says Richards, is that computers are like humans: if their workload is increased exponentially, eventually something will have to give. Managing your practice's data, therefore, is as essential as ensuring you are fully staffed.

A modern practice relies on the accuracy and availability of its patient data - and a proactive approach is the only way to avoid meltdown, advises Richards: "If you just leave things be then inevitably atrophy will set in and then it will be too late - you need someone to be monitoring the situation and asking what challenges the next six months will bring."

IT's not my problem

If you work at a large hospital, the likelihood is that your IT is dealt with by a dedicated chief information officer (CIO). For smaller practices, however, responsibility for IT normally boils down to a decision between outsourcing and developing existing in-house skills.

Richards is usually wary of the latter. "If you have a smaller organisation, you can have a situation where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," he warns. "You have someone who thinks they know and understand all the issues, but actually they don't."

For small practices, the crucial decision when it comes to IT is to make sure a decision is actually made. Too often in small organisations IT becomes a drifting responsibility and data management is not an issue until it is too late.

Richards has no problem with physicians who prefer to manage their practice's data individually, but he insists that a little due diligence goes a long way when it comes to an area where they are not professionally trained.

"If someone is defensive about it then it probably highlights that they have concerns about their own understanding," he says. "But it is no different to seeking a second opinion of a doctor on a medical case - you're not saying they are right or wrong, you're just verifying."

Troubleshooting

It doesn't take a technological wizard to work out that if you have too much data, you might need a bigger hard drive. So if you decide to bring in a consultant, what do you actually get for your money?

The first step for an IT consultant would be to make sure all your data is in the same place, says Gigi Matthew George, of Alpha Data's Dubai office. "Most private clinics have records that are stored electronically, but they are probably not done in an organised manner," he notes.

"They may have disparate pieces of data lying around - although they may not be indexed properly, or they may not be consolidated in one place and they might not be secure."

George also reasons that physicians might not appreciate the different ways that data can be stored, according to the relevance of the information. Data can't just be deleted once a patient is better, but neither can cases just build up indefinitely.

The key is to classify, says George. "There are three ways that you can classify data - online, nearline and offline. Online data is what you need immediately, nearline is data that you can probably wait for and offline data is data that is archived that you probably look at very rarely."

The storage material should match the data's classification, explains George. "For instance, online could be on disk; nearline could be on DVD and offline could be on tape."

Drive time

Cost is normally the deciding factor when it comes to any business decision and IT is no different. Yet making an informed decision in the fast-moving world of technology isn't easy, admits Richards.

"The technology is quite complex and it is always changing...so no sooner than you think you have a handle on it there is something else you should be considering."

Gigi Matthew George advises that the best way to guard against future demand growth for data storage is to implement a modular system, where you only have to add more capacity as and when you need it.

"Your data growth could be as much as 30-40% per year - but it is very difficult to predict because the growth of data today is exponential."

The fact that data is increasing at such a rate is an inevitable reality of a digital economy. What is less reported, argues Richards, is that technology is actually winning the battle to meet this demand. "Fortunately, the data solutions in the market today are getting better and better," he insists.

"While there is this increasing demand for storage, the capacity is actually outstripping it - it is actually becoming less of an issue."

Still, that's no reason to be complacent - especially in healthcare.

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