Healthcare IT Blog

Archiving Patient Information; Take the Next Logcial Step

Published on 03/28/2016 by Jacob Wheeler

Information Lifecycle Management (ILM) is an essential approach to the economics of storing an ever increasing amount of digital data.  Core to every ILM strategy is archiving infrequently used data.  For Protected Health Information (PHI), the practices of ILM are further complicated, introducing additional concerns not applicable to most enterprise data.  Retention periods are longer and retrievals from the archive are more frequent.  Retention periods are longer due to state laws which mandate the periods of time for which PHI must be kept, in some cases indefinitely.  Retrievals are more frequent because the lifecycle of patient data mirrors the lifecycle of the patient; unlike video surveillance, for instance, that is archived and only recalled when there is an incident, if ever, archived PHI must be recalled when patients return to the hospital for future operations, checkups, etc.  Despite these unique challenges for healthcare archives, we archive PHI for the same reason we archive anything: to save money.

We archive data away from our precious flash cells and 15k disks because they’re expensive, built for our production storage where performance is the ultimate criterion.  This is an accepted, nigh ubiquitous, practice, but to where should we archive?

Many of us archive to a local, tier 2 storage array; this is an array designed for high density and low cost, populated with 7.5k spinning disks.  This is a good start, but archiving to a local device has its challenges.    Disaster Recovery plans require you to geographically disperse your data which is difficult if you don’t already have multiple datacenters, and expensive even if you do.  Archiving to tape would certainly be cheaper, which also solves with simplicity the issue of disaster recovery (you could easily send some tapes off-site), but remember, a healthcare archive has to accommodate long retention periods and frequent retrievals; tape is both unreliable and slow, even for an archive.  Lastly, archiving to a local device is expensive.  Yes, it’s certainly cheaper than not archiving at all, but you are still responsible for hardware, software, datacenter space/power/cooling, administration, support, etc.  If the primary point of archiving is to save money, why incur those costs?

The cloud is your answer. 

Yes, a cloud service provider has to cover the aforementioned expenses on their end, but the cloud provider operates at a scale that affords discounts of bulk and experience not every hospital has.  There are many advantages of cloud services, (e.g. simplicity of operations and time savings) but to the point of archiving – the cloud saves you money.

Moving to the cloud is not a simple decision, though, and the reasons many of us have yet to do so become quickly and easily clear.  We are in healthcare, where data security and compliance is paramount and the performance of a healthcare archive has to accommodate frequent retrievals.  With compliance considerations such as HIPAA and HITECH, archiving to one of the large public clouds (Amazon, Google, Azure) may not be feasible.  A smaller cloud service provider, ideally one focused on healthcare, is a good alternative.  Even here, you have options – how do you decide?

Ask them the following questions:

·        Is your cloud HIPAA and HITECH compliant?

·        Will our data be kept isolated from the data of other facilities?

·        Will our data be in one datacenter or multiple?  What is your Disaster Recovery scenario?  Whose data gets recovered first?

·        Is our data encrypted?  At rest?  In transit?  What kind of encryption? Am I responsible for key management?

·        What percentage of uptime does your Service Level Agreement guarantee?

If you find the right service provider, moving to the cloud can simplify operations, free up datacenter space, save valuable IT resources, and above all else, reduce your operating costs; it’s the next logical step.